Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Election Backlash

As feared by many, the backlash after Barack Obama's historic win was swift and ugly. In Springfield, MA, just hours after Obama's win, a predominately African-American church was burned to the ground. On Staten Island, NY, a young Muslim teen was beaten by white youths who shouted "Obama" as they beat him.

Police around the country have documented hundreds of hate crimes in just the two weeks since the election. The saddest incident I read about was where second-grade schoolchildren were chanting "Assassinate Obama." I just couldn't fathom six and seven year-olds spouting such hateful invectives. At Baylor University in Waco, TX, a noose was found hanging from a tree. The university president now says it was a "old, forgotten rope swing and not a noose."

In Snellville, GA, one white resident had this to say following the election: "I believe our nation is ruined and has been for several decades and the election of Obama is merely the culmination of the change." Another white resident of Snellville has this to say: "There is a large subset of white people in this country who feel that they are losing everything they know, that the country their forefathers built has somehow been stolen from them." (emphasis added)

In school rooms across the country, many white teachers have cut off discussions of Obama's victory. Whether this is out of fear of class disruption or the teachers' own inbred racism is unclear.

William Ferris, Senior Associate Director of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina recently stated: "Change in whatever form does not come easy, and a black president is the most profound change in the field of race this country has experienced since the Civil War. It's shaking the foundations on which the country has existed for centuries." He added, "Someone once said racism is like cancer. It's never totally wiped out, it's in remission."

Racist paraphernalia depicting Obama has increased at least ten-fold since the election. A friend recently suggested that I Google "Obama nigger." I was amazed, disgusted and saddened by the results of that search. Another friend told recently of an e-mail sent to members of a group to which she belongs. She is the only African-American in the group. The e-mail contained a picture of the White House with rows and rows of watermelons on the lawn.

The Secret Service, which investigates all threats against a President or President-Elect, would not provide numbers, but reports are that since November 5th, there have been more threats targeting Obama than any President-Elect in history. Perhaps the one that was most chilling to me was the betting pool in Maine, where for $1, bettors could join a pool and pick the date closest to the date that Obama would be shot. There was a sign that read "Let's hope we have a winner."

The Southern Poverty Law Center documented 888 active hate groups in the U.S. in 2007. Surprising to many, California leads the nation with 80 active hate groups. Texas is second with sixty-seven. Please note that these are active groups, groups who have members, regular meetings and who no doubt act out their hate.

To my knowledge, the last of the slaveholders died some time ago. Yet, the stain, the legacy, of slavery remains. Much of the hate acts are committed by young adults in their twenties. At the base of racism is ignorance and fear. I, and many other people of color I know tire of the necessity of educating those who are ignorant. We tire of being the only person of color in a group. We tire explaining that we don't all love watermelon. We tire explaining that just like them, we are not monolithic. Yet, the teaching, the conversations, must continue, must expand, must envelop those who need educating. To not do so, confines the anger, the disappointment, the hurt within us.

I pray for the safety of President-Elect Obama and his family.


Friday, November 7, 2008

To Whom and What does Barrack Obama Owe?

Tonight on my drive home, I was listening to NPR's Latino U.S.A., a show I frequently listen to and enjoy. One of the guests, an Hispanic man whose name escapes me, talked about how the Latino voters in Florida, Colorado and Florida won the election for Obama. He then went on to talk about what Obama now owed Latinos. His comments gave me pause. As I've read, studied and discussed issues of diversity and ethnicity over the years, one thing I have concluded is that there are more commonalities between groups than differences. As I thought about what the guest said, I realized that, despite my being African-American, I've never felt that any politician owed anything to my ethnic group. Rather, I support candidates who support issues that concern classes rather than ethnic groups of people.

Issues such as teenage pregnancy, job losses, drug use, access to higher education, poverty and lack of health care are issues which, in my opinion, cross all ethnic lines and have more to do with class than ethnicity. I was uncomfortable with the notion that Obama now owes Latinos, in this man's opinion. My discomfort propelled me to look up the demographics of the recent election. According to U.S. News & World Report, the demographics of Obama voters in the most recent election were: African-Americans – 96%; Hispanics – 66%; Women – 56%; Unmarried women – 70%; White men – 41%; Hilary Clinton supporters – 84%; and Under 30 – 34%. These demographics are based on exit polls so there is, of course, margin for error.

I think what troubled me was the notion that rather than Latinos voting for Obama because there is displeasure, great displeasure, with the Republicans and their actions or lack thereof on items that concerned their community, Latinos voted for Obama to obtain some kind of quid pro quo for Latinos. The speaker went on to say that Obama owed Latinos and should at least appoint several Latinos to his administration. He further added that Obama was now beholden to Latinos. I am not one of the 4% of African-Americans who did not vote for Obama. I was an early supporter of Obama. Nonetheless and despite the fact that 96% of African-Americans voted for Obama, I don't feel that he is beholden to the African-American community. As proud as I am to see an African-American elected president, my support of Obama had very little to do with his race. I supported him because he talked about issues and solutions that affect me and people like me: His recognition of the dwindling middle class; his recognition of the inability of many to pay for higher education for their children; his hope to use diplomatic approaches rather than the war-mongering of the current president; his constant talk of this country being one country, rather than a country split into red and blue; and, his ability to retain his composure while facing often withering attacks. Do I expect Barrack Obama to be a messiah? Certainly not. I do believe and hope that he will attempt to tackle the problems and issues that affect the 95% of this country who are not wealthy.

I have long maintained that the issues in this country are socio-economic and class-based rather than race. After listening to the guest on Latino U.S.A. this evening, I had visions of Latino groups pressuring Obama to do this, appoint this one, get this bill passed, etc. If we are to ever move past the issue of ethnicity in this country, we must get past the notion that each group has to advocate for themselves, rather than for the good of the larger group. One of my favorite words is commonalities. I have long felt that we should celebrate our individual cultures and heritages, but it would be the focus on commonalities that will further our progress, not as individual "races," but as members of the one race that really matters – the human race.


Monday, November 3, 2008

Standing at the Precipice

My country, the country of seven generations of my black and red ancestors stands at the edge of a precipice tonight. Tomorrow, November 4th will be an historical date in the history of this country – regardless of who wins. The United States will either have its first African-American president or its first female vice-president. I am unabashedly an Obama supporter. While my support of him is not solely based on his race, I am mighty proud of him and this country. I honestly doubted that I would live to see the day when a black man would occupy the oval office as commander-in-chief. I doubted whether my sons would live to see such a day. I hoped my nine-year old grandson would live to see such a day.

As this day approaches, I think of my father who passed away at the age of 82 in March of this year. I think of his early support of Obama and though I know he's beaming down from above as this day approaches, I sorely wish he were here to cast his vote and celebrate the victory. I also think of my ancestors, both African and Native, whose blood enriches the soil of Virginia. I think of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the three civil-rights workers who were murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in 1964 for attempting to register blacks in Mississippi. I think of Denise McNair, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson and Addie Mae Collins, the four little girls murdered in 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama. Denise, Cynthia, Carole and Addie were my contemporaries. These little girls were killed in Sunday School at the 16th Street Baptist Church. This election is for them, too. I think of Irene Morgan, who in 1946 refused to give up her seat on a Greyhound bus to a white person and was jailed. I think of Rosa Parks, whose courageous act in 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama helped to begin the crumbling of the Jim Crow South. I think of W.E. B. DuBois and his Talented Tenth. Specifically his words, one in ten black men becoming leaders of their race in the world, through methods such as continuing their education, writing books, or becoming directly involved in social change. He believed they needed a classical liberal education to reach their true destiny as what would in the 20th century be called public intellectuals. I think of Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and, oh so many others, countless and often nameless. And, of course, I think of Dr. King, who knew we would get to the mountaintop though he would not get there with us.

My heart, my mind and my spirit is full. Words fail me at the pride I feel. Pride not only in this black man, Barack Obama, but also pride in my country, that finally, blessedly, hopefully, we are finally beginning to make progress on the racial stain that has blighted this nation since its birth. I give thanks to all those who fought and died for this day to be possible. We stand at the precipice.

Still I Rise!

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops.
Weakened by my soulful cries.

Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.

You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.

Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?

Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.

Maya Angelou

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Make it believable – Blame it on a black man

The hot news last Friday was the story of Ashley Todd. This 20-year old woman claimed on Wednesday to have been mugged by a black man at an ATM in Pittsburgh. The story made national headlines because Ms. Todd, who is white, gave a detailed description (6'4" black man, black shirt, jeans and black sneakers) of the man who mugged her and, after the mugger spied a McCain bumper sticker on her car, returned to hold her down and carved a B for Barack Obama on her cheek. The story was accompanied by photos of Ms. Todd with black eyes and a clearly visible B on her cheek. When I first heard the story and read the discussions about it, my skeptic alarm bell went off big time. First, being a Pittsburgh native, I wondered about what she described as "a bad part of Pittsburgh." Bloomfield is a mostly white, working class neighborhood of Pittsburgh. Nobody would describe Bloomfield as a "bad part" of the city. Secondly, I wondered why the B on Ms. Todd's cheek was written backwards. It is unnatural, and very awkward to write backwards. I wondered why a mugger who had just committed a crime would return to his victim, hold her down and take the time to not only carve a letter on her face, but to take the additional time required to carve the letter backwards. Pittsburgh police considered the story suspicious from its onset. Today, Ms. Todd's story was revealed to be a complete fabrication. There was no mugging. There was no sexual assault. She evidently carved the B onto her own cheek (obviously using a mirror). Most importantly, THERE WAS NO 6'4" BLACK MAN.

This is just the latest evidence of what seems to be an inbred reality in the hearts of many in the United States. If a white person really wants their story to be believed, blame it on a black man. We all know that evidence of this abounds in our culture, not only in recent history, but in the entire history of black people in this country. Perhaps the most infamous incident in recent history was the story of Susan Smith. Ms. Smith fabricated a story of being car-jacked by a black man who subsequently kidnapped her two children. Most black people who heard the story doubted it from jump. We know the drill. Sadly, we were correct in our skepticism and it was later revealed that there was no black man. Ms. Smith sent her car with her two small sons into a lake in a warped belief that without her children she would be able to resurrect a relationship with the son of the rich man in town. Then there was the story of Charles Stuart. Stuart was a white man in Boston. He claimed he and his nearly nine months pregnant wife were carjacked by, what else, a black man. This black man shot Stuart and his wife. Stuart survived. The baby was delivered successfully but died a week later. Mrs. Stuart died the first night. The city of Boston was outraged. Boston police went on the rampage, determined to find and arrest the black man who had committed such an horrendous crime. The black community was harassed non-stop. Black men of every age were accosted by the police. Police eventually arrested and coerced a confession from a young black man. Of course, the end of the story was there was no black man. Charles Stuart didn't want a child. He shot his wife and himself. He murdered his wife and caused the death of his son. Being the coward he surely was, Stuart committed suicide by jumping into Boston Harbor.

Going back a little further, there is the infamous story of Rosewood, Florida upon which the movie Rosewood was based. In 1923, a black man supposedly raped a white woman. The strong, prosperous and self-sufficient town of Rosewood was destroyed by avenging white men. "Official" reports claim that only something like eight people died. "Unofficial" reports report scores of black people were murdered. Of course, there was no black man. The story was invented by a promiscuous wife who feared her husband's reprisal. I suspect if there had been such a thing as a witness sketch of the suspected black man back in 1923, he would be an identical twin of the black man in the Stuart, Smith and Todd sketches.

As I discussed this latest hoax of the criminal black man with my younger son today, he reminded me of the incident that happened several years ago in San Antonio. The story broke on the evening news that a white woman had been kidnapped from the parking lot of an Albertson's. She was then taken to a wooded area (coincidentally not far from my home at the time), doused with gasoline and set afire. Someone noticed the fire and called police. With her dying breath, the woman described the black man who had committed this horrendous crime. She died a few hours later at the hospital. We all know the ending of the story, but I will relate it here anyway. The woman was about to be arrested for embezzlement from her employer. There was a videotape of her purchasing the gas can from WalMart. There was video of her filling the gas can at a Diamond Shramrock gas station. There was no abduction. THERE WAS NO BLACK MAN. The woman set herself on fire. Her dying words were a lie! I remembered at the time thinking that even as this woman lay dying, her last words were a lie about a black man.

As a black woman living in the United States, I ceased being surprised a long time ago by stories like Ms. Todd's, Mr. Stuart's or the woman in San Antonio. Despite all that black people have contributed to this country, in many corners of it black men are considered natural suspects, men who are not to be trusted, men whose greatest wish is to ravish a white woman, men who, when encountered on the street, should be feared. As a mother of two black sons and as a grandmother of a black nine-year old grandson, it saddens me to realize, to accept, that no matter what education they attain, no matter what success they may achieve, they will always remain the proverbial suspect by many. Mr. Stuart and the woman in San Antonio were middle-age people. Perhaps some might conclude that they had "old school," racist thinking. Ms. Smith and Ms. Todd, however, were women in their twenties. The message is clearly that this racist thinking and conniving is not limited to the older generation. There are two sides to this coin. First, there are those who continue to perpetrate the lie of the criminal black man. The other side of the coin is that, even in 2008, many people automatically believe the story about the black man who committed a crime to be the truth. What does this foretell for the future of my sons, my grandson and all the other black men in this country"? Government statistics show that most crime is intra-racial, that is the victim and the criminal are the same race. Nonetheless, stories about the black man who committed a crime must be disproved, rather than proved.

I wonder even if Barack Obama is elected president if this will change. The specter of the criminal black man will remain – and be believable.


The Birth Defect of a Nation

What is a birth defect? A birth defect is defined as an abnormality of structure, function or metabolism, whether genetically determined or the result of environmental interference during embryonic or fetal life. A birth defect may cause disease from the time of conception through birth, or late in life.

I have long maintained that the stain of slavery will forever remain on the United States. Like the red wine stain on a white tablecloth, the history of slavery and racism on this country is a stain that, although faded, will always remain. You can rub and rub at the wine stain on the tablecloth, but despite all your efforts, despite whatever solvent you use, there will always remain a remnant of the stain. Slavery and its racism is the remnant that remains on the United States. It is the birth defect of this nation.

Condoleeza Rice, said this recently: America doesn't have an easy time dealing with race … obviously, when this country was founded, the words that were enshrined in all of our great documents that have been such an inspiration to people around the world … they didn't have me [sic] for an overwhelming element of our founding population. And Black Americans were a founding population," Rice said. "Europeans and Africans came here and founded this country together. Europeans by choice and Africans in chains and that's a not a very pretty reality of our founding. I think that particular birth defect makes it hard for us to confront it, hard for us to talk about it and hard for us to realize that it has continuing relevance for who we are today.

The definition of a birth defect concludes that a birth defect may cause disease from the time of conception through birth and later life. Such is racism in this country (and others). It is a birth defect whose genesis began at the very beginning of this country. It is an allegory that handily lends itself to racism in this country.

It has been my belief, my fervent hope, that dialogue, honest conversations about race, will begin the long, difficult journey to reconciliation. This blog is the beginning of what I hope to be such dialogue. I will write and post the writings of others about racism, America's Birth Defect.