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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.

2 comments:

Xavier Onassis said...

I believe that you are seriously out of touch with what "white people" think.

Your attempt to lump "white people" into some monolithic, priveledged group with one voice and one viewpoint is bigoted. Every bit as bigoted as you accuse whites as being against blacks.

And yes, I know that you yourself are white and an academic, a PhD who am much more better educated in these complicated social issues than me. How dare I have an opinion on matters above my station? I should "know my place".

Would it be irony or juxtaposition to accuse a "priveledged" white woman who insists on always living in the most blighted urban area she can find of also living in an intellectual and academic White Tower from which she can issue proclamations of social injustice?

I am a 53 year old white Democrat who has been enthusiastically supporting Barack Obama from Day 1. I voted for him in the Primary and I will vote for him in the General.

Not because he's black, not because he is the Anti-Jesse, not out of some sense of white guilt or liberal eliteism.

I'm supporting him and voting for him because I think he is the best man for the job. Period.

Wish he had chosen Bill Richardson for VP instead of Biden.

I have a feeling the Press Secretary will spend the next 8 years beginning every press conference with "What the Vice President meant to say was..."

But whatevies. Maybe he'll make Richardson Secretary of State. Hope so.

Don't be so quick to assign your lofty, academic, racial profiles to real people.

Do you see me? said...

Well, then. I guess I wasn't speaking to you, was I? I have no idea why you are so ready to vilify me because of my academic credentials. I don't ever flaunt them. I'm just trying to add to the conversation. I think there are many white people who fit this description. I'm glad you are not one of them. Join in and make a point and stop shooting the messenger.