A South not far from here
I’ve noticed people who claim we live in a post-racial society tend to be the people who have the most hang-ups about race.
I’m from Alabama, so that means I have a GED or a PHD in the subject, depending on your point of view.
I’m white. I could get technical about that, mention that my blood line contains American Indian and possibly African American DNA, but it would make little difference. I was born white and identify as such.
I didn’t watch President Obama’s speech as it was happening. I was at work and saw the apoplectic reactions flow forth across my Twitter feed.
I won’t bore you with some of the drivel that people consider meaningful contributions to this conversation. There’s a certain element of our country that loses its mind every time the president speaks about race.
That element is more concentrated in Alabama, where people saturate their food in butter and their minds with Fox News. The bunker mentality of Alabama and much of the South existed long before I was born. It remains with us still.
Alabamians, Southerners, have a tremendous gift for denial. The denial is so pronounced that any breach of that mental bunker triggers a visceral reaction. Many white people bristle at the idea that we’ve created and enabled systems that discriminate against blacks.
Some of us still insist that opportunity is equal, that racism is dead and that those days are long behind us.
A look at the numbers of blacks dropping out of school and winding up in prison, often for victimless drug crimes, should be enough to dispel that myth. Blacks make up 14 percent of the population, but represent the majority of prisoners. I could break down the statistics any number of ways, but that one pretty much says it all. The myth lives because if it died we would have to admit we played some part in the human misery others endured.
We’ve come a long way in this country, but let’s not forget that it was only about 150 years ago when blacks were bought and sold like cattle. Many of the people who instituted and perpetuated Jim Crow are still very much alive. They are our family, but they are still culpable.
I certainly am not a fan of everything the president does, but he has indisputable talents. He knows how to strike the balance between his responsibility to speak for blacks and to speak to them. While it would be easier to march up to the podium and rail against the unfairness of these institutions, he’s chosen a path of patience. When he speaks on race, he does it with the grace and wisdom the moment requires.
This isn’t the first time a president has spoken about a controversy over race. After members of the Los Angeles Police Department were acquitted in the Rodney King case, President George H.W. Bush said the verdict was “hard to understand.” President Bill Clinton offered his take on the O.J. Simpson verdict, saying it “troubled” him knowing that blacks and whites could see the world so differently.
The president’s speech today certainly isn’t unprecedented in terms of subject matter, though it stands out for its depth and length. For some reason the only president we’ve had who really understands racism catches flak whenever he talks about it.
The debate about race has never been just about race. The subtext is about control. The president represents everyone, but he’s also a symbol of the rise of black influence and wealth in this country. The idea of whites losing control keeps racism alive, though it moves in the shadows and we deny it exists because we don’t talk about it much.
It exists. Many of us are guilty of it at some level, either because we are direct participants or silent enablers. The president has made a sincere effort to use his position to deepen our understanding of what it means to be a black man in America, something white men like me will never know.
I’m grateful I haven’t dealt with those injustices. I’m thankful I had parents who knew I couldn’t carry with me the racist views of a South not far from here in our history. I’m optimistic about a future where whites have abandoned the “reverse racism” pity party they throw for themselves whenever a black man achieves anything, especially if he did so with any kind of assistance.
White people are doing pretty well, all things considered. I think when this president speaks to us in a polite, candid way about his life experiences that we should listen.
We might learn something.