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Monday, September 22, 2008

Money and Politics

The presidential race is entering the home stretch - debates begin Friday and we should expect some ugliness in October. How far will the Republicans and their surrogates push the race envelope? They are already doing their normal Rovian lying technique - tell a lie often enough and people will believe it. When it becomes the "truth" the Dems have to spend time tearing it down. Will there be whispers of a white mistress? Will there be links to Farakhan or other black militants? Did you see the disgusting display at the God fearing Family Focus conference of Obama on a pancake box as Aunt J with the backside showing him in a turban pointing to Mecca. I kid you not. This of course is then "exposed" by the media - giving further publicity to these racists. I am so thoroughly disgusted by it all I can't even think straight.

My bigger concern is this Wall Street crisis. How long will it take before whispers are heard about Obama's ability to manage the money? If you know the movie - Trading Places - the old geezers are overheard chortling that they would never let a N..... run their firm (Eddy Murphy as the hero thrust into the role of money manager). Will the Bernacke's and Paulson's of the world hand the keys to the safe over to Obama? We are in a full-scale economic meltdown that is scaring the pants off of a lot of people. We've already heard from a couple of good ole boy representatives from KY and GA call Obama uppity and a boy. What impact will this bailout of a gazillion bucks do to heighten fears about who is in charge? It's setting up to be a perfect storm.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

What can one person do?

I'm devouring news sources today concerning 2 items that are related - Hurricane Ike and the Presidential election. The election is now in freefall and who knows where it will land - not unlike the storm surge that swept away Crystal Bay, TX and pushed Galveston into downtown Houston.

We are on the precipice of choosing a fork in the road - going down one will produce a neocon revolution that GW could only dream about. The other will produce a reality that reflects our nation as a diverse, energetic, bold, and entrepreneurial people. While I tend to promote the dramatic and rely on hyperbole, I believe there is some truth here. The stakes are high and those that think nothing changes have got their heads in the sand. I have many friends and colleagues who are working in the campaign apparatus for Obama doing all the things that organizers do (and yes, Guilliani knows what an organizer is despite his repulsive commentary). And the campaign of Obama encapsulates what race relations could become in the USA - a thoughtful, purposful, realistic integration of people and ideas into the fabric of our culture.

But today I write about inspiration of what one person can do to affect race relations. Can one person make a difference? Yes, they can. Obama is making a difference on a big stage. MLK made a big difference on a world stage. And there are scores of people who are making a difference on smaller stages in their communities. Touching the lives of others is important work of the human realm. We forget that sometimes because we are busy fighting with our boss, tending to our kids, picking up the groceries, checking our email...We forget that touching - as in touch, move and inspire - another person is a way to have an impact.

I was in a movie theater yesterday and I was really eager to see this movie. There were 3 women behind me who started to chat it up during the previews and on into the intro of the movie. Being on the east coast now, I did what any eastcoaster would do - I whipped around and said glaringly - Am I going to have to move? They shut up. Well, didn't I feel vindicated. Unfortunately for me, my behavior nagged me throughout the movie. I knew what I had to do. When the credits rolled and people stood to exit, I stood, turned around and said, Ladies, I'm sorry for my outburst. I've had a bad day. I hope you enjoyed the movie. They said no problem and thanked me. I think they were shocked. This doesn't happen on the east coast.

Here's one more detail. They were all black. I knew that when I chastised them. It had flashed through my mind - oh here we go - black people like to talk it up to the movie. I felt I had to let them know I wasn't gonna stand (or sit) for it. Yeah, it's like that. Racism rears its head everywhere. I was exerting my privilege. I would not have done that to 3 middle aged white women. I might have done it to 3 white teenagers - but that's an age thing. So I had to repair the harm - which I did. But it reminded me how slender a thread this election hangs on. There is so much talk about how white working class women won't vote for Obama and Sarah is their shiny new hope. Sarah gives these women the ability to tell Obama to be quiet - there is a new girl in town and she deserves to be heard. Why? Because she's new? No. Because she is white and a woman.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Our comfort factor

2008 is shaping up to be a watershed year. Get your seat belts on folks, because this is huge.

A colleague and I were discussing the presidential campaign and he stated that he had heard from friends that they thought people would not vote for Obama because he is "out of the comfort factor" of some voters. Of course for white people that means they have the privilege of actually voting on the basis of their comfort with anyone of another race. But most white people don't quite see it that way. Instead that "comfort factor" is based on what we all "know" about anyone who is not white - they are lazy, less educated, suspect, criminally minded, beneath us, can't be trusted, etc. Yet in polite circles we would never say we harbor racist feelings - but rather our "comfort" is not yet there. Months ago I wrote about the discussion early on in the primaries about whether America is "ready" for a black president. Well the question is whether white America is ready. Again, privilege dominates and dictates the discussion. And I know many whites will say - it has nothing to do with race - I just don't think Obama is qualified...but what is your standard of qualification? George Bush? Dan Quayle? John Kennedy? Or I don't like his policies - then were you ever shopping the Dems or are you always voting some other party? People are quick to dismiss the race issue but they sure have an opinion on Obama.

Dick Polman, a nationally recognized columnist in the Philadelphia Inquirer, wrote today on the "elephant in the room." read it here. The upshot is that there are white voters who just can't bring themselves to vote for a black man for a variety of race-based reasons. I have a few words of advice.

Dear white voters who can't bring themselves to vote for a black man for president:

I understand your fear. I grew up in a violently segregated area of Chicago where staying segregated was tied to the idea that it would maintain your economic position. I get it that when you are economically vulnerable, when you fear the loss of a good paying job, that when you have a modest house and fear losing value in it, that when you feel like you have "made it" to a rung on the ladder that your spot is dependent upon not getting pulled down by the guy below you trying to get on your spot. It is so very easy to assign the race of the person below you as the reason to deny them your spot. It is so very easy to suggest that because of the race of the person below you that they are not worthy to pass you or take what's yours. And it is so very easy to claim that anyone who has passed you is because of race-based preferences that work against you. And now you face the ultimate act of faith - that you would allow someone of that race to become your President - who will determine the shape and ease of the ladder you have worked so hard to climb and on which you maintain your position. That's a lot to ask I know. But ask I must.

You have been taught for many years that blacks are the greatest threat to your economic security through their ability to pass you by using affirmativae action, special government assistance, and civil rights laws. What you never see is that it is the bosses and rich whites at the top of the ladder that are keeping you down. They tell you to fear the black population and you comply by doing whatever you can to keep blacks down. This completes a very nice cushioned and isolated position for the wealthy. You can't get to them and your attention is diverted towards the bottom, not the top. I borrow this point from Tim Wise (see it here). The Republicans have complained that the Democrats are trying to escalate class division and asking people not to buy into that. Of course they are. Because if you do, you might see past race worries and see those wealthy people at the top who are doing everything they can to keep the economic divisions they built! We all want to be financially secure and even rich. But to compound the sin of keeping down those who seek to be rich by keeping down people by race is just wrong.

I ask that you see America in a light that instead looks at hard workers and freeloaders. Who is working hard to better themselves and take care of their family? Maybe it is that black guy who is trying to get a union job, but the union is not keen on letting too many black guys in. Who is slacking and would rather sit around than work? Maybe it is that white union guy who knows his brother-in-law won't expect him to do anything while he collects his padded paycheck. This election is not about race. It is about who is working hard and who isn't. You may not know it or want to realize it, but there are hundreds of thousands of black and brown families that are struggling to get ahead just like you. They are raising their families, trying to learn in school, and going to church. But they have the added burden of someone putting their foot on their neck. Civil rights and affirmative action are just policy - and they can be distorted as easily as a union rule. People will take advantage of whatever opportunity they can find - whether it is an affirmative action hire that seems to be less worthy than a white hire or whether it is a white hire that is done on the basis of race because hiring a black is out of the boss's "comfort zone."

I ask that you not reject Barack Obama on the basis of his race. I ask that you not collapse all your political concerns into one easy measure - that he is black. I ask that you not find lots of reasons to not vote for him to justify your discomfort with his race. I am asking a lot. But the only people who can change race relations are those with privilege and power. And in race relations, being white means having privilege and power. Everything in this country is set up to compare to the white standard. You have the privilege and you have the power. Be a good steward of that power and use it wisely. Don't judge Barack Obama on the color of his skin or devise a list of his bad qualities that lead up to a justification of dismissing him because he is black. Look at the issues. Imagine him to be white. Who would you vote for? Open your eyes and be an American who is about healing our country, not dividing it beyond recognition. Thank you.

To those that have already have a strong understanding of privilege and power and race issues, please understand that I am not asking Obama to be white and I am not asking whites to maintain their power of privilege. I am asking those who are in that zone of discomfort with race to take a fresh look. It is not easy to do. Not everyone will see the issues the same way. Let each come to this conclusion on their own path. But come they must in order to see that an election dictated by race is a losing proposition for our country.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

My new neighborhood - Cooper Grant in Camden

In Kansas City I lived in a city of 500,000 and a neighborhood of 10,000. But I knew the people on my block and every day I ran into someone I knew, somewhere around town.

Camden is a city of 78,000 and my neighborhood is a few hundred - only because the only market rate apartment complex in the city is in my neighborhood. We had a block party over the holiday weekend and had a very nice turnout. The neighborhood is quite diverse - young, old, immigrant, Anglo, African-American, Camden natives, transplants (like me), Spanish speakers, Italian speakers, renters, homeowners, blue-collar, white-collar, and student. All this in about a six square block area! People wave, chat, honk, and generally feel good about this neighborhood, despite the urban challenges we face.

Camden as a whole is not as hospitable. The city is not very diverse (mostly hispanic and african-american) and very few white residents. The daytime population is centered near my neighborhood and is very white - US Courthouse, Rutgers, other schools, Campbell Soup company, hospitals, and a hi-tech manufacturer. But when the workday is done, my part of the city changes dramatically. Stores close up at 5 or 6pm - even the CVS! Traffic thins and pedestrians disappear. The streetcar train to Trenton takes the commuters away and comes much less frequently. Other parts of the city don't change nearly as much - daytime has a lot of people sitting on their porches and hanging on the street. At night the people go inside and the people hanging on the street are dealers and streetwalkers. But the shops stay open - particularly the food places. There is a grocery store on the side of town far from me, but it stays open at night. I've had simple advice from residents of all colors who are working professionals - don't drive through Camden at night. I have ignored this advice on a number of occasions but the drive can be daunting. Every day the newspapers remind us that Camden is the most dangerous city in the country - with a higher murder rate per 100,000 than Phily. I'm not sure I'm buying that factoid - because certainly NYC, Chicago, and even KC have a high number of homicides. KC is on a record setting pace this year, but so is Camden.

I don't know the city well enough yet to know where to avoid, how much fear is just hype, and what the streets are really like. The level of hysteria over the "eastside" in KC is laughable and I never worried about living or being there. But I spent time getting to know the area. I'll do the same here and figure it out. For now, I will enjoy my little neighborhood and city life.