The Martin Luther King Day before Obama
How do you spend Martin Luther King day? I spend it, every year, in mixed feelings, and the sense that there’s more I don’t know about race relations than I could ever claim to know.
I used to comfort myself with the delusion that our country is pretty much post-racial, that the civil rights movement had liberated all but a few backwoods examples of the American soul from the hatred and discrimination of the past. It was easy to think that, insulated as I am in a prosperous, majority-white community.
The candidacy of Barack Obama was like switching on the lights in a bug-infested kitchen. The realization of a credible black candidate for president galvanized racist America, brought them out into the open, and made it impossible to believe in the happy delusion anymore.
Obama won by a small but comfortable margin, against a man so obviously wrong for the office and our moment in history that I must consider racism as one reason the margin was not a landslide.
Oh! what we saw when we switched on the lights! Obama waffles, Obama monkeys, David Duke describing Obama as a “visual aid to White America that we are losing control of our country.” Duke is exceptional; very few people will admit to racism. Some aren’t even aware of it. Our country is deeply screwed-up over race, truly the sins of the fathers visited upon the sons and the sons’ sons. It cannot be wished away.
Obama said something very hopeful in his landmark speech on race, which followed the Rev. Wright debacle. He said;
The profound mistake of Reverend Wright’s sermons is not that he spoke about racism in our society. It’s that he spoke as if our society was static; as if no progress has been made; as if this country – a country that has made it possible for one of his own members to run for the highest office in the land and build a coalition of white and black; Latino and Asian, rich and poor, young and old—is still irrevocably bound to a tragic past. But what we know—what we have seen – is that America can change. That is true genius of this nation. What we have already achieved gives us hope – the audacity to hope – for what we can and must achieve tomorrow.
(Do I even need to say that it is worth going on to read the whole speech? Jon Stewart described the event as; “An American politician spoke to the American people about race, as if they were adults.”)
About that progress: I do not personally remember the crisis in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1957. Briefly, following the Supreme Court decision Brown vs. Board Of Education, a federal order to desegregate schools was defied by the governor, who sent in National Guard troops to keep nine black students from attending classes. Think of it! Brave men with guns holding high school students at bay; I think I know who showed the real courage.
President Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne Division to enforce the rule of law, and thus protected, the students walked past white protesters threatening every manner of mayhem against the children and their families. The school district, with the governor’s blessing, closed all its high schools for an entire year, rather than integrate.
That was only fifty-one years ago. Did we really expect everything to be all-good by now? Like a kind of spiritual lead-poisoning, oppression pollutes the soul of the oppressor. Sometimes it truly is only the children in which we can find hope. As parents, we try not to pass prejudice on to our kids. Or at least, we should try; some of our institutions seem to have been chartered for the very purpose of handing down our spiritual poverty to the next generation.
Watch this extraordinary BBC interview with Dr. Terrence Roberts, one of the original Little Rock Nine and today the CEO of a management-consulting firm. See him describe three generations of progress, and reflect on what will happen tomorrow.
Injustice echoes back and forth across the expanse of time; we’re not free of it yet. But tomorrow we’re going to do something we should have done eight years ago; inaugurate an intelligent person as president of the United States. And we’ll do something else which we should have done much longer ago: change the picture that all our children receive from us, of who may take part in the destiny of our country. We will say to history, “There is not a white America and a Black America, but a United States of America”, and try to put aside our illusions and continue the work to make it true.