Perspectives: Race Not Far From the Surface as Obama Articulates a Message of Transformation.

The recent victory by Barack Obama in the Democratic primary and securing the nomination of his party was supposedly a signal to that party and the nation as a whole that race was a less significant factor in America. That assessment may be  premature. Despite how hard the Illinois senator tries to refocus the issue, and despite how focused the nation now is on the economic conditions that plague our country, the polls are way too close for anyone to believe that race is not a confounding variable in voters minds.

The misery index in the country couldn’t be any higher and no one can deny that the current Republican administration in Washington and their Congressional and Senate counterparts are chiefly responsible for our current condition. One party touts an experienced politician with 30-plus years of service on Foreign Relations and Senate Judiciary Committees as its vice presidential nominee, while the other advances a candidate with barely 2 years of experience in the governor’s seat, and a tenure as a small town mayor where the reviews on her performance are mixed, and an intellect that crumbles under any questioning or scrutiny about foreign affairs, empowering women, and inconsistencies regarding “bridges to nowhere.” And yet, this race for president is still close, and I scratch my head and wonder what our nation could be thinking? Are American citizens really consumed by the race issue? Certainly, the “anti-Black” sentiment that is continuing to raise its ugly head in the contest between Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain bares that out as poll after poll indicate a significant percentage of the voting public, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, will have trouble voting for an African-American candidate. But, will such sentiments galvanize the African-American vote to unite behind Obama, and invite other groups who consider themselves oppressed (Latinos, women, etc) to do the same?  I wonder.

In some respects, the media cannot be blamed for mirroring America’s obsession with issues of race. After all, our nation’s history is replete with numerous examples of both how race has been used to polarize certain groups against one another, and how the expressions of racial preferences have contaminated the exercise of justice for people of color in this country in the areas of law, education, public accommodations, busing, housing, the economy, and employment.  Those seasoned enough to remember an America of old have witnessed White racists acquitted in jury trials of killing African-Americans, simply because they were White. Conversely, we have seen Blacks convicted without sufficient evidence simply because they were Black. We’ve seen fights over school integration, struggles over desegregating buses, impositions of Jim Crow laws and separate but equal doctrines, colored-only bathroom and drinking fountains, differential law enforcement, discrimination in hiring, and much more. Indeed, the vicious legacy of racial preferences is part of the fabric of our nation’s history.

While the media certainly can be excused for appeasing the public’s appetite for racial issues, they cannot be held blameless for their attempts to link racial preferences for Black candidates with the broader population of African descent people’s voting track record, or for that matter, any preferences for things Black. To do so is to ignore some fundamental realities of Black life in America. What they can be blamed for is not recognizing that systems of racism and legacies of White Supremacy have in fact operated under a cloak of racial preferences for Whites over Blacks for decades. What they can be blamed for is assuming that African-Americans share a cultural worldview similar to their White counterparts that employs a “self-affirmation while denigrating others who are different from you” mentality. What they can be indicted for is their lack of understanding about Black life and culture and how the dynamics of oppression too many Africans internalize make a vote on purely racial lines unlikely.

African-Americans, and other people of color, share a common history of oppression and discrimination that has negatively impacted their lives, and particularly their psyches.  Among the consequences oppression often instigates is a desire to identify with the oppressor’s ideology (even when that ideology forces a group to see themselves in a negative light), while simultaneously engaging in a destructively competitive relationship with other oppressed groups. This circumstance seems to characterize both the absence of allegiance African-Americans have for other African-Americans, and the tensions that surround the relationships between African-American and Latinos in particular, whether those tensions be played out in corporate board rooms, on the streets, in jails, or in school systems all across this country. Regarding the former, one has only to look at the way many African-Americans struggle in their daily lives to know that preference on the basis of color alone has rarely been an issue for the masses of Black people. 

Economically, our dollars circulate less than once in our community before they leave to support the business enterprises of other community groups.  African-American businesses struggle to make it in many neighborhoods often because we have been trained to view things Black as deficient when compared to those goods and services in White communities. Historically Black colleges and universities sometimes struggle with enrollments as parents and students alike question whether the education students will receive will be as good as that obtained in predominantly White institutions of higher learning, despite evidence to the contrary. Regarding the latter, African-American and Latinos, and even Asian Americans, despite their common history of struggle and coalition, compete against each other for affirmative action quotas in accessing higher education, for jobs in local businesses and corporate divisions, and on the streets and in prison, fighting over turf neither owns a square inch of.

Given this reality, you will note my surprise when during the past several months, I have seen the media make a point of advancing a position that African-Americans would vote for Barak Obama in his race with McCain, simply because he was Black. Not only does reality not bare that out, but it is an insult to African-Americans for the media to believe that we would place a candidate’s color at the top of our list of criteria for securing our vote, rather than the myriad of issues that significantly impact our lives. Race is a fact African-Americans live with each and every day of our lives in this country. And yet, I cannot imagine people voting for race alone in deference to their economic interests, their children’s educational futures, their access or lack thereof to affordable health care, or their government’s policy on unjust wars, particularly when African-American and Latino men and women will be disproportionately concentrated in the combat forces and on the front line of military combat duty where casualties of war are heaviest. I mean, would the media expect that I would embrace the politics of a Clarence Thomas, whose policies have been nothing if not anti-Black, simply because he was Black?  I hope not.

The appeal that Barak Obama has among many African-Americans both underscores race and transcends it. In underscoring race, there is no denying the pride many African-Americans take in seeing themselves reflected in the face of a political candidate who has secured the Democratic nomination, and may possibly winning the White House as President of the United States. He also speaks to the issues and policies that if left unaddressed, will continue to create nightmare realities for the masses of African descent people, but also Whites, Latinos, Asians, American Indians, and others. In transcending race, he speaks to the values long held by people of all ethnic and racial groups. Those values that: seek to affirm the dignity and humanity of each individual, regardless of the color of their skin; those values that believe in synthesizing individual achievement with collective survival and responsibility that creates a more caring nation; those values that see education as a right of all Americans who want one, and not just a privilege for the wealthy and elite; those values that believe that health care should be affordable and attainable for all Americans; those values that believe America cannot restore our moral authority in the world without cleaning up our own house before we attend to those of others; those values that say the government belongs to “we the people” rather than “we the special interests;” those values that support “free enterprise,” but keep government regulations in place to ensure that corporations from middle America to Wall Street will always do the right thing; and those values that embrace the dynamics of hope, and change, and optimism rather than the legacy of cynicism, and corruption, and fear.

In taking a broad look at the Obama candidacy v. McCain, the media would do well to reframe the questions of race that seek to highlight the divisiveness of America’s racial past.  Instead, I would invite the media to consider that if race is a factor, it exists as an invitation to our nation’s citizens to challenge our conventional thinking. Here we have an opportunity to confront our long held fears about people who are culturally different, and whether their elected positions are more about serving this great nation, rather than dreaming up ways to retaliate on other racial groups for all of the years of oppression they have suffered. Here we have an opportunity to confront the stereotypic images we see of people who are culturally different, that only serve to reinforce the legacy of America’s racist past. Here we have an opportunity to challenge the levels of cultural ignorance that are so pervasive in American culture that keep us more divided and conflicted about seeking common ground.  Here we have an opportunity to unlock those shackles of conceptual and emotional incarceration that for too long have kept us locked in a psychic chamber of fear, anxiety, and distrust.

In Sen. Barak Obama’s candidacy, we have a real opportunity to look within our hearts to find that measure of human authenticity where trust resides. And in understanding my belief that “real trust is not an external circumstance but an internal virtue,” we have an opportunity to trust that making him jump through a series of intellectual, emotional, and behavioral hoops to show that he is “just Black enough” for African-Americans or “not too Black” for Whites, Latinos, and Asians, will not ease our anxiety. That resolution will only come when we trust ourselves enough to take a risk with him, and believe like he does in the possibilities for change, and the audacity of hope.

Dr. Thomas A. Parham is past president of the National Association of Black Psychologists.

 

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