Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Thoughts on Barack Obama and race politics

I have a theory that the success of Barack Obama is part of a third stage in race relations in America- and a very welcome one.

The first stage was the natural integration occurring in the 50s and 60s, led by people of conscience and the churches- and I’m proud to note the Unitarians were an important part of that stage. More progress was made in the 60s than those who did not live through them might be aware of. Sports were integrating, led by courageous team owners; TV was starting to cast Black and Hispanic roles, and even occasionally the lead roles- “Julia”, “The Cisco Kid”, “The Bill Cosby show” (his two early shows, not the one from the 80s), “I Spy”, others. The military had been ordered by several Presidents to integrate. Colleges were voluntarily starting to reach out. But progress simply wasn’t deep enough or fast enough.

The second stage was integration forced by laws and court orders. Council and Congressional districts were redrawn to get more minority representation. (curiously enough, this resulted more in party guarantees than racial ones; historically, Blacks would vote for a white Democrat over a Black Republican, and Black Republicans were elected by majority white but majority Republican districts) The equal opportunity and housing laws, affirmative action, etc., were very effective, but caused emotional backlash. The backlash wasn’t totally racism, but also the strong contrarian streak in the American psyche; Americans hate being ordered around and told what to do, even if it’s the right thing to do.

The third stage is made possible by the fact that the majority of the country is young enough to have never lived through the horrible conditions of the first half of the last century. A 30 year old today has grown up in a world where “race” simply doesn’t mean what it did when people my age were growing up. They live in a world where race is merely “a” factor, not “the” factor; a world where a white Marshall Mathers can be accepted by the rap community or a Tiger Woods is accepted in the golfing community- or a Barak Obama is being judged on his issues and character. Obama is running as an American, not as a representative of his race; he is not asking for votes because it’s “his turn“, and people are responding. The 93% white Iowa caucuses picked him because he’s the fresh face, the symbol of change, not the symbol of race.
Many people don’t realize that the March of Dimes wasn’t always devoted to fighting birth defects. In fact, it was organized for the express and only function of fighting Polio, but then the unexpected happened: Polio was cured. Rather than disband an effective organization, they selected another illness to fight. It is my hope that in the future, when all us dinosaurs with bad memories of the past die off, the same thing will happen to groups like the NAACP.

No comments: