Friday, November 7, 2008

It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over

David Worth is Director of Forensics and a lecturer in Humanities at Rice University.

The election of Barack Obama has sparked a glow that rivals two kids one week into a new relationship. Suddenly life has purpose, meaning, and promise. The inadequacies I saw in myself yesterday are now themselves cast into doubt since "someone loves me, really loves me." News reports gleefully speculate on the New Kennedys' -- uh, I mean Obamas' -- possible choice of a puppy. Commentators and people polled exclaim that "we aren't as racist as we thought we were" (USA Today, Nov. 7) because we elected an African-American president. A guy at Subway yesterday told me (unsolicited) that a new era of trust had begun (yes, really). Sure, that's pretty amazing, but it also says that there's a new fad available for consumption: self-congratulation. If you've seen a TV or newspaper in the last few days, then you know: The Race Issue in America is apparently over.

Americans, as a Western culture, like things with clear beginnings and ends. We like to think that the race issue has ended because we elected a black president and because Oprah is a very rich woman.

This is a crisis.

By that I mean that there is amazing opportunity here and terrifying danger. We can use this occurrence to really be hopeful and kind to each other and then actually address our problems, or we can use it to convince ourselves that we "got 'er done," that we licked the Race Problem like the plucky Americans we are. If we assume that it's over, then the struggle is really lost. This event can be motivation or co-optation. We can say that we have overcome ourselves for the moment and we should be glad about it, but we cannot let his election be our absolution.

Racism didn't evaporate with the election. The same USA Today/Gallup poll cited above reports that 27% of respondents said they were "afraid" as a result of the election. This scares the hell out of me. These are only the people who are at least self-aware enough to know they are racists and embrace what they are. The kind of racism discussed by The Race Project, the racism inherent in our very self-substance, has not been banished by a $600 million campaign.

Today, right now, race is a factor -- in a damaging way -- in billions of interactions going on all over the country. I mean that literally. Yeah, we did a good thing Tuesday -- no doubt about that -- but if we slap ourselves on the back and move on to "the next thing," we are fools.

1 comment:

Welcome! said...

I resist some of the arguments that are made here. For instance, the idea that McCain ran a racist campaign is a stretch. First of all, if people harbored negative feelings about black people, there is something about Obama that doesn't need McCain's reminding - the mere fact that Obama is black. Are voters made more racist by campaign activities that explicitly or obliquely imply that a black man is black? If anything, it fosters the impression that acting/voting on anti-black antipathies is okay. That much I'll grant.

However, to claim that 27% of people being afraid of Obama is indicative of said racism is a stretch. One problem with this is that nearly the same number of Obama supporters indicated that they were afraid of a McCain administration. Hardly, I presume, because of racism. But this is overlooked here.

Moreover, given the memes in this campaign, there is far more than race that can help explain this fear. First of all, Obama did hang around with terrorists. I'm not going to claim that this history reflects tendencies on Obama's part, but the lesser educated and generally more paranoid probably won't parse this argument. People could be afraid that he's not conservative. People could be afraid that he wants to raise taxes. People could be afraid that he's less strident on foreign affairs.

I'm NOT saying that racism isn't an important part of today's political landscape. I will argue, however, that America should be allowed to be celebrate what this election means to many of us, and what it will mean to our children. Does it mean that racism is gone? No, it certainly doesn't. And we can't let our guard down. But we can't beat ourselves up because our successes aren't absolutely complete.