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Saturday, January 26, 2008

Are we on the verge of greatness?

I'm watching the South Carolina primary returns. I am exhilarated. My friend had asked me to prognosticate the results earlier today. I nailed it! But, I am a professional political scientist, so it is sort of my job to know these things.

We met Barack Obama and his wife Michelle on a 4th of July trip to Iowa. We took a couple of high schoolers with us and traipsed after Barack and Hillary from town to town. We went to Iowa for living room politics - and it did not disappoint. We got to meet Barack, talk to him, shake hands, and look him straight in the eye. Got to do nearly the same with Hillary and Bill and it was all thrilling. But seeing and speaking to Mr. Obama really struck me. He has the type of charisma that is hopeful, exuberant, and inspiring. I knew that I was seeing was the real deal. No pretension, no theatrics, just putting himself out there with his ideals and vision. I believe it is that character that transcends race. I believe it is what we see in South Carolina today. I believe this is the force that Hillary is facing and realizing she may not be able to overcome.

Politics is a battle, it is a winner take all environment, and it is humbling or humiliating. Most people won't risk the potential of losing and the humiliation they think they will endure. Those that do risk their ego by running do so with either a "fire in the belly" to win at all costs or a visionary leadership that says, "this is who I am and I hope to win, but if I don't, I can say I was true to myself." I am hoping this is who Barack is. I fear this is not who Hillary is. I know this is who my friend is; the one who is running for local office.

So much was said today by the political analysts about race. Blah, blah, blah,...Obama will win the black vote, but can he be competitive with Whites? Hello!!! He won Iowa - the state that is about as white as it gets, save for Idaho! The pundants want to make it a racial contest - maybe they think it will invite more viewers. The news people are mostly white. I don't think they have a clue about what is going on in the country with race relations, yet they have the strings to elevate and suppress information, spin, and insight. Tonight's election results cannot be denied. This country may have turned a corner...

Thursday, January 17, 2008

race and the politics of fear

For me, at this moment, life is about politics. I am a political junkie and having two competitive national party primary contents unfolding is about as good as it gets! Of course the negative assault on Obama by the Cintons and their surrogates is cheezy. And to do it under the guise of MLK day is a damn shame. Imagine assailing a black candidate's commitment to equality during an MLK event. Then to turn and say, I think gender and race have no place in this campaign. I'm stunned. But hey, maybe that's what 2008 will be all about.

I have a friend that is running for office. He decided to throw his hat into the ring. He is black and running against a white incumbent. The campaign is about 1 month old and the race card has already been played by the white opponent. The tactic is to suggest that if my friend gets elected, there will be too many blacks on the council and that the white voters will lose their voice - so artfully carried by this white politician. This ridiculous assault on my black friend comes as he launches a campaign to unify voters across a racial divide in our city. The tactics used by the incumbent confirm that a unity campaign is essential and will probably be ignored.

Why is the politics of fear so easily raised and so readily accepted? My suspicion is that when whites feel threatened (outnumbered), they use race as a way to draw a line of difference between options and conveniently, their option - the white option - is best. Now typically the overt race card is not played except by Confederate flag fans, reverse discrimination critics, and white supremacists. But the subtle race card is played frequently and easily. In my friend's case, the incumbent is suggesting that my friend is beholden to black political bosses. Of course the incumbent is not at all beholden to his white political bosses - the white business community! Why the business community stands for progress and civic gain. The black political bosses don't care about black citizens and businesses, but only lining their own pockets. Black bosses are bad. White business bosses who try to control politics are good and care about the community. Get it?

Whites seem to confuse racial solidarity with race-based political control. If you are black and stand in solidarity with another black, you must be a crony. Yet if whites support other white candidates, no one questions it at all. Some news person asked a national black business person why he was supporting Hilary and not Barack for President. He had to first justify why he did not support the person who looked like him - Barack, and then proceed to explain why he supported Hilary. No one is asking Bill Bradley, a white politician, why he isn't supporting Hilary and instead is supporting Barack. While Blacks may stand in racial solidarity with a black candidate, they could choose to support or not support based on other criteria. But whites are never put in the position of defending their choice to support a white candidate.

In my neighborhood, the local black political club hands out endorsement cards to cue people on how to vote. Unions do this too, so it is not just a black thing. Political machines do it too. The old Daley Machine in Chicago had it down to a science. White people I talk with think it is awful that these endorsement cards are used to guide the uninformed black voters and that blacks vote like sheep (yet I have never seen a sheep at a polling place...). While it might be ideal for everyone to study up and figure out who to support - blacks have to consider who they can trust as well as whose ideas they like. When whites have to face that added burden, then come talk to me about being uninformed.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Flashing lights on my block

Hearing gunshots is all too common in my neighborhood. "Hearing" is a relative term, however, because you are not really sure how close or in what direction the shots are coming from. Not unlike the controversy of the grassy knoll in Dallas when Pres. Kennedy was shot, it is difficult to discern the exact location of gunshots because sound bounces off of buildings, the caliber of the bullets changes the sound, etc.

Last night I heard shots on my block. I looked out and saw a couple of guys who started to run. Then I saw a police car cruising up. This never happens - the police were at the right place at the right time. The guys ran into my neighbor's house across the street, which sees its share of drama in the multi-generational family group that lives there. Police cars are like mushrooms - they spring up in the dark and multiply quickly. Before I knew it, there were 4 squad cars with lights and police milling about. The police in my neighborhood are not stupid and once they assessed the situation they turned down their lights to the baby flashers and most of the cars left their lights off. This keeps down the anxiety level of the neighbors who don't want spotlights and disco flashing lights invading their homes. I stepped out on my porch like any good nosey neighbor to see the show. Several people were sitting on the ground being questioned. The cops investigated my car, parked on the street, with a flashlight and proceeded to come ask me questions. Here is where it gets tricky.

Most white people of middle class standing have a belief in the police department that they are the good guys, we should support them, and that we should cooperate with them. This is brought on by the fact that we see ourselves as likely victims of crime and that the perpetrators probably won't look like us. Therefore, the police are on our side. This perception of police does not carry over to the minority community or people of color. Most cops in my city are white. I have never seen a cop of color in my neighborhood. If white cops think like white people, then what feelings, assumptions, and sentiments do they bring into my neighborhood? Are you seeing where this is going? Think of the movie Crash and the duplicitous part played so well by Matt Dillon the white police officer with a chip on his shoulder. "Don't snitch" is the byword on my street and sometimes that advise is well founded.

But you don't have to have a chip on your shoulder to still go into an interracial situation with preconceived notions. I know this because of my own reactions to this little drama on my block. One of the people in the group was a white girl. She ended up in handcuffs and questioned separately (probably because of her role in the situation, not because she was white). I had some immediate feelings when I saw her being questioned - what was she doing in this group? did she have a clue what this crowd was up to or was she just a hood wanna-be? I felt empathy for her because she was white. I couldn't help it, it just is. I don't know her, I don't know the other people who were questioned, but I felt differently about her than the others. What do the white police feel? Sure they have their protocol and their routine. They aren't going to be stupid, because this white girl could be armed and shoot them as easily as anyone else could. But once they assess the situation, does she get less lip? Do they give her just a touch more room? Do they use a softer touch? It's subtle; but remember the issue of power and consider that all white people feel a sense of privilege in an interracial situation. Black people know this and will see the situation in quite different terms than whites do. And this leads to confrontation.

The way to stem violence and create community is to recognize the imbalance of power inherent in a racial situation. Some police understand that, but many do not. People of color anticipate that a white cop will demonstrate the power of white privilege and write it off to the power of being a police officer. The differences between the two are vast and until white folks understand this, I don't expect much to change in my neighborhood.

I'm so tired of white people saying that statistics don't lie and it is black people who are doing all the crimes. Indeed, there are a disproportionate number of people of color who are arrested, convicted, and sent to jail. Don't always assume that this is evidence of the number of people that are guilty. Maybe white people get let go with a warning or cop a plea and serve no jail time. It happens.