Tag Archives: Race 2012

Race 2012 Post #2: “A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

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!

“A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

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.

Advertisements

Race 2012: A Conversation about Race and Politics in America. Post #1: The Colored Drug Store

I am honored to be participating in a blogging project for the upcoming PBS documentary Race 2012: A Conversation About Race & Politics in America, airing Tuesday, October 16 (check local listings). The program takes a provocative look at race amidst the 2012 election and beyond.
(Click on the link above to “Like” the program on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.) Many thanks to my friend and fellow blogger, Monica Medina for inviting me!

                       

Though I did an earlier post about President Obama, The Would-be-Master-of Compromise, which is now included on the Race 2012 site, the following is my first official contribution to this conversation.  I will be doing three posts, examining the idea of racial solidarity, how members of historically oppressed groups champion one another, how we feel when barriers start coming down, and this sentiment’s impact on the presidential election. The post below, entitled “The Colored Drugstore” begins with the grandmother I never met, and ends with the event of my voting for Barack Obama in 2008.  

“You be sure and go to the colored drug store, now,” my grandmother said, watching her boys head out the door, referring to the only drugstore in town run by a fellow African American.

Walgreens was close by and bigger, with more of a selection.  Still, my father and his brothers did as they were told.  Whatever their mother needed, no matter how urgently, it wouldn’t have mattered if the colored drug store was in the next county.   You patronized your own.  If a black man opened a business, that was where you took your business.  It was all about solidarity and survival.

The year was 1935.  The Great Depression was in full swing and you could bet there were plenty of white men down on their luck who’d have some choice words for a black man running his own business.  They might even have had some choice eggs to throw, if food hadn’t been so scarce.  As it was, there were threats, there were thugs with bats.  It took a brave black man to open a store.  Which was why, as far as my grandmother Albertina was concerned, it was the duty of every black consumer around to support him.  To shop at Walgreens was a slap in the face to your entire race.

There were no Jim Crow laws in Chicago like they had in the south.  My father attended an integrated public elementary school.  Later he was one of a handful of black students at a predominantly white high school, where no one especially objected to his presence, though all the black students had to have a niche, a way to stand out and prove themselves of value to the student body.  Dad was too small to make a name for himself on one of the sports teams as some of his friends did, but wound up using his wit and artistic talent as the chief cartoonist of the school paper.  Dad and the other black students looked out for one another, just as my grandmother looked out for the owner of the colored drugstore.

Though my father knew blacks who had been chased and beaten for “showing their color” in the wrong part of town—though my father had been chased more than once himself—he did not grow up separate from, hating, or even mistrusting whites in general.  But he had internalized the notion that your black brothers and sisters would have your back. You should have theirs too.  Just in case.

My father married my mother, a Jewish woman who shared his views, also a member of a culture where oppression had strengthened tribal bonds.  An anecdote:  sometime in the 1940s, my mother’s cousin came running into the house with a joke to tell his mother.

“Guess what?” He said, “A boy down the street just got run over by a steamroller, and they folded up his body and slid it under the door!”

His mother, my mother’s aunt, looked up from the stove, concerned about one thing: “Was he Jewish?”

The punch line was of course spoiled, but it hadn’t mattered to my great aunt.  What mattered was that no Jewish boy had been injured.

Group solidarity—members of an oppressed group supporting and championing one another—was not, is not, limited to blacks and Jews.  Women have it too.  We cheer when one of our number breaks through the glass ceiling, or otherwise gains acceptance into turf previously reserved for men.  My Latina friends cheered for Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court (well, I did too).  Every group has this sentiment to one degree or another.  People have a tendency to stand up for those like them, even if there are fundamental differences of opinion within the group.

For blacks, however, it is more complicated.  Attitudes toward blacks and blackness: black speech, black features, black culture, are often charged with a combination of fear, admiration and repulsion.  The stereotypes of black Americans as violent, dumb and lazy—perpetuated on television and film (though I believe this is improving)—are some of the most insidious around.   For most blacks, these stereotypes are fictions with no bearing on their lives.  Most blacks I know are proud of who they are, their group identification compatible with their sense of individuality.  But there are some young people who internalize the stereotypes in order to feel accepted, claiming that successful blacks are “acting white.”  So that when a black person succeeds, she risks claims that she has left her people behind.  This came up with the president in 2008; there were questions circling as to whether  Obama was ‘Black Enough.’ This is why many believe that it is important for successful blacks to remain connected to the community, to be a role model, and to acknowledge: I am one of you and one of you has made it to where I am. (More on this in a later post.)

“Breaking the color barrier” was a phrase I heard a lot while I was growing up, from my parents and their friends.  Jesse OwensJackie Robinson, Marian Anderson, Hattie McDanielPaul RobesonThurgood Marshall, Arthur Ashe.  Blacks who went where no black man or woman had gone before, adding color to their field, breaking ground for others.  Both my parents rooted for these black pioneers, hailing their presence on the world stage as game-changing.

My father, who died in 1995, never imagined that there would be a black president.

Once a year, on my father’s birthday, I have this ritual.  Late at night, by the light of a candle, I take out his picture, play his favorite music and I give him an update.  I tell him about my life, my family, but also the world.  I give him current events he’d be interested in.  I tell him things he’d get a huge kick out of.  Like his grandchildren.  Like the Williams Sisters (he played tennis himself).  Films and books he would have loved.  The fact that two of his friends—unlikely compadres because of their different backgrounds—met and became bosom buddies at Dad’s own shiva.  I talk about the adventures my mother has had since he’s been gone; the trips she’s taken, the friends she’s made. I tell him about the internet, all the things it allows us to do: from Google searches to blogging.  These things would amaze and amuse him if he were here to see them all.

On his birthday in 2008, I told him about Obama.  I said, there’s a black man running for president, Dad.  And I think he might win.  I got teary saying it aloud, imagining what Dad  would think if he could really hear me.

On election day itself, I waited to vote until both my kids were out of school so that I could bring them with me into the booth.  I wanted them to see me help make history.  And, as I pressed the red button (those big cranks were already a thing of the past), registering my vote for Obama, I thought of my dad and began to cry.  This made my children laugh; they still can’t understand the concept of crying when you are emotional and happy, not sad.  Finally, my son—then five—sobered up.

“I know why you’re crying,” he said.  “Because Barack Obama is brown like Grandpa Mel.”

I hugged him, hugged them both. “Well, something like that,” I said.

On Dad’s next birthday, in 2009, I said, Guess what Dad?  The president of the United States is a black man.

My father’s sense of solidarity would not have spared the President from Dad’s sharp political scrutiny, any more than my father’s pride in the accomplishments of black artists and musicians spared them his occasionally harsh artistic judgments.  But while Dad might have frowned in disagreement at some of the President’s choices, nodded in approval at others, the fact that Obama had broken the ultimate color barrier—well, that would have just made my father grin.