The following is my second (technically third) post for the blogging project affiliated with Race 2012: A Conversation about Race in America, the PBS Documentary that airs tonight, right after the presidential debate, and will be rebroadcast on October 19th. Check your local listings; the air times are approximate and different everywhere. Read more details about the blogging project on my friend Monica Medina‘s website. Tune in!
You are on the subway, on your way to work, the train hurtling through the tunnels, when suddenly it screeches to a halt.
“We are experiencing delays,” the conductor announces over the aged, whistling speaker system. “There is a sick passenger on the train directly ahead of us. We expect to be moving shortly.” Maybe he expects to be moving shortly because he’s new in town. You, however, have been riding the subways for 20 years. You know that “a sick passenger” on the train ahead equals roughly a 45 minute wait. So you settle in. You sigh, you look around the train car for a kindred spirit with whom to make eye contact, share a sigh and a headshake. You’re a woman in your thirties. Chances are the one with whom you make eye contact is also a woman, also in her thirties, or else forties, or twenties.
Or maybe you’re not heading to work; you’re going to the zoo and have your child in a stroller. Your child fusses with the sudden motionlessness of the train, the noise of the speaker. Some riders glare at you as the baby gets louder: maybe it’s not your fault we’ve stopped, but it is your child making the wait less pleasant. But now a woman, clearly a mother herself, smiles at you. It helps because you guess that she’s been in your shoes. Another woman offers a baggie of crackers she usually saves for her child in situations like these. She asks how old your baby is and tells you a story of her child at that age. And just because of who you are and what you represent: a mother with a child, you have a community.
Your child is calm now, munching away on crackers. You look up to notice that two elderly black men who did not get on the train together, who were not sitting near one another, seem to have introduced themselves and struck up a conversation. Now they are laughing, warmly, with the acknowledgement of some shared experience. They are too far away for you to hear what they’re saying but you can feel it between them: community.
And those college age girls, both dressed in black, eyes outlined in thick kohl—now they’ve exchanged the eye roll, the headshake. Community. You’re like me; I’m like you. We’ll be here for a while. But at least we’re a we sharing this nightmare. And that we-ness, belonging to a group defined as much by who we are as who we’re not, really helps you get by sometimes.
Sometimes the we-ness comes from age, gender, being a parent or not a parent, sometimes from religion, class or marital status and sometimes from race.
Ah, race. I see it as just one of many aspects of the person, but it’s often the one you see first, the one that’s most loaded, hardest to talk about and therefore the one I’ve been asked to discuss in the context of this current election.
How much does racial solidarity impact how we vote? How important is it to have a “Like-me” president? And when a candidate reflects our race, are we more likely to approve of him? Are we more likely to find fault with a candidate of a different race?
In some ways, this election, like the last, is all about identity. The issues that matter to a voter depend on his or her personal history, socioeconomic status, education level and yes, in some cases, race. Each of us wants our president to suit who we see ourselves as being.
Last time around each ticket had its own flavor. We had the dynamic, black community-organizer-attorney and the older white guy with down home appeal. On the other side was the aging, white war hero and the plain-spoken hockey mom who said things like “you betcha”? Which ticket felt like YOU? Were you one of Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzlies? Or were you an Obama Mama? Were you a member of the chai-drinking, tree-hugging liberal elite? Or were you a gun-loving bible thumper? Wherever you stood, whatever the candidates’ styles and values, right there in all our faces was this brand new development that meant something in history and to most everyone in the country as well. The next president might be a black man. A big deal, no matter how you felt about it.
Before 2008, only white, straight, Christian men had the option of picking a “like-me” candidate. But with the last election, for the first time in history, it seemed that people of other descriptions might get that choice in the near future. Those who supported a “liberal agenda” (and I mean liberal in a good way, going by the dictionary definition which is something like “applauding progress”) came in all persuasions, all races, orientations and religions. Many saw themselves in Obama.
For affluent, educated blacks, Obama was more than a black candidate, he was a stereotype buster. He made very public the image of a black man that we identified with and wanted the country to see. Educated, well-spoken, passionate and above all, a family man through and through. That the number one criticism of Obama, as he campaigned through the grain belt and the rust belt, was that he was too elite, too aloof, didn’t understand the concerns of the “working man” (remember Joe the plumber?). For all of us who’d been living in the shadow of the angry-lazy-violent black stereotype, this was vindicating. So you guys don’t want him because he’s too smart to be president?
Jump ahead four years. It’s 2012 and we’ve been living with a biracial president for four years. The fact of his race is no longer a novelty, but there are those who still see the president first and formost as a black man. He has been accused of hating white people, and at the same time, due to his mixed heritage, of not being black enough.
In any case race still matters in this country. I know this when I Google words like African American, or black women, or interracial families. I come up with blogs where strong opinions are voiced on everything race-related. Some of it’s intense: white-separatist, Afro-centric, and everything in between.
Alas, we are not a post-racial society—as some jumped the gun in declaring, back in 2008, popping open the champagne bottles, tossing the confetti, cheering not just the election of the first African American president, but also the end of the Age of Race as we know it. I think it was foolish to believe that electing a black president might somehow make racism a moot issue. The higher any minority rises, the more of a threat he is to bigoted haters, the more vocal those haters will become. All over the blogosphere are so called “patriots” who “love” the country and are heartbroken to that anyone with roots in the African continent should be running it. They openly admit to hating Obama because of his race. They call him horrible names, and the caricatures—don’t get me started. But I believe those so called “patriots” (who flaunt their rabid disrespect for the president of our country) are on the fringe.
For the many of us who want him around for another four years, I think it’s less about Obama’s race these days than what he stands for. This time, it’s about the president’s policies. How do you think he handled the mess he was handed? Do you believe Obama truly saved us from another Depression? And what about his approach abroad? Do we want to keep him at the helm going forward? Regardless of race, I do.
I won’t vote for Mitt Romney—not because he is white or Mormon or rich. I won’t vote for Romney because I have no idea who he really is. I don’t believe a word he says; I don’t trust him. And maybe I think it’s cool that the president is biracial like me, but it’s not why I’m voting for him. I’m voting for him because his worldview—not his skintone—matches mine.