Perspectives: Racism
The Changing Face of Race

February 11, 2008 Print version       Other articles by this author

Funny thing happened just before Super Tuesday. I got a call from my dad who'd done recent genealogy on his side of the family to discover, or have reaffirmed, that we have pretty close lineage with white people and Cherokee Indians. No surprise to me, though any affirmation of my white or Native-American heritage strikes many blacks as a disaffirmation of my blackness. In truth, we are all a nation of "mutts". Perhaps I'm just growing more comfortable with that reality. I'm clear that I'm seen as a black man, so the other parts that make up the man haven't served me particularly well when followed by cops. From a scientific standpoint, race is largely illusory; and there's lots of genetic evidence that supports this. Still, for centuries people have bought into the lies that it isn't. People have been enslaved, lynched, and discriminated against based on the "illusion", so the unreal, in this case, is about as real as it gets. To ignore the realities of race would be to ignore reality.

Just before Super Tuesday I received a call from a friend in Alabama urging me to "do the right thing" at the polls. It was not unlike all the other text messages and emails I'd received from other friends encouraging me to "make the right decision" at the polls. I'd previously been insulted by some of these assumptive calls. Perhaps someone without my political savvy and understanding would be swept up by the politics of sentimentality that seems to have the democratic nation in a charismatic Obama frenzy. This isn't to suggest that I dislike Obama or that I don't think he's a capable candidate for presidency-- it's simply to suggest that I simply hadn't been convinced that he's a better candidate than Hilary Clinton; and that any associative, race-based vote just hasn't been my way. When I was in high school, there was something symbolic about voting for your own. In Arkansas, the lines were clear. If black, you voted for a black candidate (if available). It was more of a symbolic stand for racial solidarity than any pure investment in who would better serve the people. White people voted that way, so one would be a fool not to (try to) balance the prejudice, right?

Come out of the closet as gay and all the showy racial solidarity becomes exactly what it is: showy. I received an email from a female friend in Tennessee with an image of Michelle Obama embracing her husband just after an election victory. It spoke to who powerful imagery of seeing a black man and woman symbolizing strong black relationships in the United States. And all that I could think about, looking at the picture, was how few of these same black people would support any law that would permit me to have legalized commitment to a (male) life partner. I'm not sure that Hilary has a different stance than Obama on the topic of gay marriage or domestic partnerships, but it hurts more when black people reject me than white people. I'm not apologetic about holding black people to a higher standard. If the investment in solidarity is something people call me on when I'm skeptical about supporting black candidates, black business, etc...; why not call for the same solidarity on our behalf as black gay folk? I'm not an apologist homosexual who believes in remaining silent and sacrificing my life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness for the greater black good. That decision has never served me well, so I've learned better. I was, however, inspired by Obama's mention of homophobia being an enemy to our unity at an MLK Day speech at a prominent church in Atlanta. He won some points for that one. He's got to earn my trust.

To be sure, Hilary Clinton's own entanglements with the previous administration are curious. Yet she also has long enough a political history to be the subject of the kind of scrutiny she's likely to face as a primary candidate. My relative support for her has little to do with the fact that Bill Clinton was dubbed the "first black president" by Toni Morrison (Morrison has, interestingly, endorsed Obama). Over the years, I've probably been closer to the Clinton family than many, having more than a few personal dealings with the family (though primarily with Chelsea) through Clinton's terms as Arkansas governor and his presidency. I do believe that there's something interestingly threatening (to white and black men) about having a woman as president; and that's something I'll be exploring over the next months. The idea that 4 years of Hilary will translate into four years of Bill is insulting at best; and speaks to our devaluation of women's potential prowess and efficacy. I saw a bumper sticker in North Carolina recently that had Hilary with a strike through it. It didn't indicate any affirmation for another candidate, as if to say: anybody but that woman. I haven't seen any "No Obama" stickers; and any such bumper sticker would likely be read as racist. I believe that, in general, we are more comfortable as a nation with our sexism than our racism. Everybody, despite their race, is able to participate in it: whites, blacks, Asians, Latinos, and yes, even women. Though I suppose the same can be said about racism.

I believe that the political system will allow minimal change that would benefit African-Americans, no matter who is in charge; especially where poverty, education, and HIV/AIDS are concerned. Neither Obama nor Hilary, by any recollection of mine, has mentioned AIDS or HIV at any of the political debates or campaign speeches. This concerns me. On the positive side, Hilary would be the first woman as president (with a better track record than, perhaps, any president of recent years, on racial issues), Barack Obama would be the first African-American president (though I'm more interested in how his impact as Senator has affected working class and poor black people in Illinois). I'm not one to assume that a black in office represents good for black people. I'm smarter than that. I'm probably one of a few that would prefer a joint ticket (in either direction) namely because, I'm clearer that our country needs a shift in a different direction. The outcome of another four years of Republican rule gives me nightmares. I'm not being dramatic as a rhetorical device. The pessimism, depression, and collective frustration that people feel right now, if deepened or magnified, might cause this nation to implode. The fact that random acts of violence seem to be more popular than random acts of kindness is not a good trend. Hopelessness runs deep for a lot of people in this nation-- a nation becoming more and more divided along class lines than racial lines, if you ask me.

One statistic discussed by political analysts, after I suspended my anxiety and made the symbolic solidarity vote for Obama on Super Tuesday, was very telling. Beyond the overwhelming support that Obama has been getting from blacks, it seems that the other distinction between Hilary and Obama seems to be the division along class lines. According to some stats, families that make more than $50,000 have been more likely to vote for Obama, whereas families that make less than that have been voting for Hilary. And this statistic illuminates some of my concern. I believe that racial politics are shifting in this nation. I believe that many or most affluent blacks are out of touch with the poorer members of the community. In their aspiration for the great white American dream, there is a celebratory dismissal of the deepening poverty of those blacks who haven't emerged from the hood. If nothing else, there seems to be a "pull yourself up from your own bootstraps" mentality by the upwardly mobile; and without the interaction and instruction that would guide the poor to greater prosperity. It's the distinction between uppity Negroes and niggaz.

Though well-educated, having grown up dirt poor and a working class artist (at best) presently, I'm not sure I'm ready to align myself with those who talk about "Obamacizing" the nation. I'm not sure that's a good thing just yet. But yep... I voted for him. It's a vote I hope he won't take for granted, between this moment and his increasing chances of getting the nod for the nomination. So I suppose there is some promise that racial solidarity still means something in this nation, and that it's not just showy. I'm becoming clearer that I'm about being down for people who are down for me, whatever their race. Bravery is colorless, and I hope that whichever person enters office has the fortitude and resolve to impact those of us affected by more than just race. Among the challenges might be changing how we have thought about the race---and that's not a reference to the forthcoming presidential election.