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Elizabeth on Race in America

There are any number of reasons why election 2008 is unusual, and one of them has to do with the presence of circumstances that generally cause governmental power to pass from one political party to another. We find ourselves facing at least eight of those circumstances right now:

     1). A war in Afghanistan that has gone on since 2001 although conveniently fading from interest because of
     2). A war in Iraq that has gone on since 2003;
     3). An economy in which more than 700,000 jobs have been lost since last January;
     4). Vast numbers of individuals losing their homes due to a crisis in lending fueled by allowing people to borrow money based on no guarantee that that money could be repaid;
     5). An increase in the price of fuel and food;
     6). A sudden disastrous decline in the stock market resulting in a massive bailout which will be financed by the taxpayers;
     7). Mounting medical costs coming face-to-face with the difficulties of obtaining health insurance; and
     8). Declining educational achievement that has gone unaltered by such ill-named programs as “No Child Left Behind” in which students are tested and tested but nothing else is done to improve their educational lot in life.

These are the kinds of circumstances that have, historically, caused people to storm their polling places in order to toss out the governing party. Indeed, when you consider that added to these circumstances is the fact that the current President—a Republican—was the President when the largest terrorist attack in history within our country took place, and when you consider that the current President had been warned by the former President—a Democrat—to be ready for just this kind of occurrence, it does stand to reason that a few moments of careful thought might lead a voter to conclude that the best bet this year would be to allow the other party to take over for a while.

The polls should show this. No amount of mavericking on the part of a Republican candidate should convince anyone to allow any Republican near the seat of power for some time to come. The fact that this election is still up in the air is an absolute curiosity to me, and because the Democratic candidate is an African-American, my thoughts have turned to racism as one of the possible reasons why this election isn’t a rout.

Now, racism usually doesn’t announce itself in someone’s life. It doesn’t arrive with whistles blowing and fireworks going on around it. Rather, it’s a subtle thing, there before you know it and often before you are even old enough to frame a question about it. Here is how it was introduced in my own life:

When I was about six years old, my mom called me into the kitchen of our house on Todd Street in Mountain View, California. She asked me to get on my bicycle and ride to the end of the street because she had seen a child riding his own bike out there and she wanted me to track him down. The house at the far end of the street had sold, you see, and the little boy out riding his bike was African American. She asked me to ride up there to the corner of Todd Street and Dennis Lane to try to find out if that little boy was part of a family who might have moved into the neighborhood.

Although I was only a child, I knew intuitively that my mother wasn’t seeking this information because she wanted to roll out the welcome mat or send a plate of cookies up the block. She had never made a request like that of me before, and this was during the 1950s, when there lingered over many people a fear that can best be expressed with the phrase “There goes the neighborhood.” People somehow believed that the arrival of a minority family meant that their immediate surroundings would quickly turn into a ghetto.

I was an obedient child, so I got on my bike and pedaled up the street. As it turned out, the little boy in question was not moving into that house, nor was his family. I didn’t have to ask. He was nowhere to be found. But what has remained in my mind for more than fifty years is the memory of my mom asking me to investigate and what it told me about her that she thought it appropriate to ask me to do so.

This is how racism is introduced into a child’s life: through a request like that, through a casual comment, through a gesture, through a subtle act of contempt, through an overheard conversation. It is often introduced by people who would not consider themselves the least bit racist. Indeed, until push comes to shove in their lives and they must take a position, they probably never even think about race.

Aside from that moment in the kitchen, race was not a topic of conversation in our family until I got to Holy Cross High School when, in my sophomore year, I became acquainted with a group of African American boys from St. Francis High School, which was down the road. Then race did become an overt issue for my mom, and this was unfortunate because it brought into our home a side of her that I would vastly have preferred not to see. I’m not sure to this day what my mom was afraid of in connection with my acquaintance with these boys. They were only part of a group of kids who comprised a racial blend of native American, Hispanic, Anglo, and African American that, to my way of thinking then and now, ought to have made her proud instead of what she was, which was terrified…of something.

To her credit, she never once used a racial epithet to voice her displeasure. But voice it she did, and what she wasn’t capable of seeing at the time was the primary attraction this group had for me: They were wonderfully fun to be around. Their parties were the best to go to because everyone danced and no one was condemned to being a wallflower. Their parties weren’t about getting drunk, getting high, or getting anything. I will say some serious smooching went on although, alas, I was never a smoochee. Their parties were merely about having fun and fun meant dancing and everyone danced. They were, in short, my introduction to the idea of inclusion, and let me tell you that was an incredible gift to a rather badly dressed, spotty-faced girl who had not the slightest hope of being included in much of anything else.

I was relieved when the issue of race finally came out of the closet a couple of weeks ago in this Presidential election. It had been the dead elephant in the middle of the living room for quite some time, with people talking privately about it but no one willing to drag it out into the light of day. This is generally what happens with issues that are inherently unattractive and potentially explosive: If they are swept under the carpet, the thinking goes, perhaps we won’t have to deal with them. But the history of race relations in America demands that the issue be looked at and talked about openly. If we do not address it now—with the future of the country at stake—then when, indeed, are we going to address it?

I was a voter in California when Tom Bradley ran for governor. This was in the early 80s and there are readers of this who likely don’t know about that election. Tom Bradley was uniquely prepared to be our governor. He had been a policeman in Los Angeles; he had served on the LA city council; he had been a successful mayor of Los Angeles for a good number of years. He was running at the perfect time for Democrats to take over the reins of the government, and things were looking very good for him in the polls as the election day arrived. He lost, however. But the fact that he lost is not nearly as interesting as the slate of winners in that election: Every one of them was a Democrat, like Bradley himself. What I mean to say is that although Bradley the Democrat lost, the other Democrats representing every other state level office won: lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer…Need I go on? The polls had Bradley a sure winner in advance of the election; the exit polls had him a winner as people left the voting booths. But those people had lied to pollsters because they could not say what had driven their votes for Bradley’s opponent that election day: Tom Bradley was an African American man and his opponent was white.

There are people in America right now who plan to vote in a similar fashion. They plan to vote for every Democrat on the ballot except for Barack Obama. They will phrase their reasons in a hundred and one different ways. At one end will be those who see themselves as clever intellectuals and they will vote for all the Democrats and then for John McCain, saying that “the House and the Senate will keep McCain from doing anything crazy.” At the other end are people who say things like a man called Dale from South Bend, Washington, who spoke to Seattle Times reporter Danny Westneat but who, naturally, would not give his last name. Those people will be forthright like Dale: “Let me tell you, I was driving and saw that bumper sticker ‘Veterans for Obama.’ I couldn’t believe it. When was that nigger ever in the service?”

And there it is. Nigger. There’s the word. Amazing, isn’t it, that in 2008 it would cross anyone’s mind, let alone come out of his mouth? And yet there it is.

It’s a nasty word, but I wonder if it’s any nastier than the subtler terms used to make unnecessary distinctions between people? For example, how much worse is it for Dale to use the word nigger than it is for people over their cocktails to confess that they “just can’t vote for a black man” or remark that they “just can’t see a black family in the White House”? Aren’t those people the same as Dale?

Early in the election process, I had the opportunity to talk to one of my cousins about this issue. It came up because she said to me that her concern about Barack Obama was that although he is half white “he thinks of himself as a black man.” This worried her, and we talked about it. Specifically we talked about the fact that historically in the United States, people with as little as a single drop of African blood were considered black, and, as a country we developed all sorts of fascinating words to describe them: octoroon, quadroon, mulatto, for example. It can hardly be surprising, then, that Senator Obama thinks of himself as black since there isn’t likely to be a single person in America who’s going to think of him as anything else. I pointed out to my cousin that taking some time to listen to Senator Obama’s message might reassure her. So that’s what she did.

She listened right up to, into, and through the Democratic convention, and what won her over to Barack Obama didn’t turn out to be Barack Obama at all. It turned out to be his wife. The night after Michele Obama spoke at the convention, my cousin called me. She could hardly contain her admiration for Michele Obama and her enthusiasm for the fact that Michele Obama might become First Lady. “She’s wonderful,” were her exact words.

For me, watching the Democratic convention was, in so many ways, like returning to the girl I was in high school, the one who went to those mixed race parties where everybody danced with everybody else. The racial mix among the delegates comprised the face of the real America, the America that my mom was afraid of more than forty years ago, the America that we have become. The racial mix on the stage after Senator Obama’s acceptance speech at Mile High Stadium represented what is possible in this country once people put away their fear. There they stood: Senator Obama’s great-uncle, a white World War II veteran in his 80s; the Senator’s sister, half Malaysian and half white; his African American brother-in-law and mother-in-law; his own mixed race daughters and Joe Biden’s blonde granddaughters…Up on that stage, there were Asians, African-Americans, Anglos, and mixtures of all of the above. And as the camera panned over the crowd applauding the group, the faces shown were every color, every race, and every age. For me sitting at home—older now than my mom was when she spoke her fears about my friendship with kids from other races, far older than when she asked her little girl to ride her bike up the street and find out if that African American boy had moved into the neighborhood—it was a moment during which I was so very proud of our country and so thrilled to be alive and able to witness such a coming together of so many people of such diversity.

Later in the month, then, I watch the Republican National Convention. I confess that I did not watch all of it because I became disturbed by the derision with which the Vice Presidential nominee along with other Republicans spoke about Senator Obama. I did, however, watch on the night that Senator McCain gave his acceptance speech and I confess that I watched for one reason only: I wanted to count the minority faces that I saw in the crowd.

In order to do this, I never took my eyes off the screen. I counted twenty-nine minority faces. I had to delete three of them, however, when my husband informed me that one of them was Senator McCain’s adopted daughter from Bangladesh and I later discovered that two others were an Asian cabinet member of President Bush’s along with her husband. That took the total down to twenty-six. Twenty. Six. 20 + 6.

That sea of white faces is the way some people want to visualize America. But not only is that sea of white faces not representative of America now, it is also not representative of America at any time in its history. The question is, are we finally big enough as a people to face that fact? The question is, are we ready to embrace it?

With the country brought to its knees by the policies of a Republican government, this election should be the most decisive victory for the Democratic party in the history of our elections. The fact that it has even been close, the fact that the Republicans could actually be returned to the White House for another four years after the last eight does not just fly in the face of every election in recent history. It also acts as searing testimony to the fears that still dominate some people’s decisions: fear of change, fear of the unknown, fear of skin color, fear of things unexperienced or misunderstood.

You know, over and over again I have wished that my mom were alive to see the unfolding of this election. But I do not wish it as a way of proving to her that she was wrong about my friendship with those kids more than forty years ago. For as time passed, my mom’s view broadened rather than narrowed. Into our house in Mountain View came people of other races, gay people, military people, religious people, agnostics, atheists, writers, musicians, and artists. My mom learned to laugh more, she learned to lighten up just a bit, and she even learned to think it was funny when I swore like a sailor at her dinner table, as was my wont. And were my mother alive today, there is not a single doubt in my mind that she would be voting for Barack Obama. She would vote for him not only because Barack Obama is a Democrat and my mother would rather have been knocked down by a cement truck than have voted for a Republican, but also because she would have seen in him youth, promise, intelligence, and the future she had come to recognize as something she need not ever have feared.

- Elizabeth George
Whidbey Island, Washington

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