Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Addressing Racism as We Do the Right Thing

I met Daniel Wright III on my first day of college in September, 1970. He called out to me as I entered the Carleton College student union and beckoned me to join a group of students gathering for introductions. As a sophomore, Danny held court over the newbies, making the arriving students feel welcome and exuding a warmth, enthusiasm and intelligence I would come to know and love in the years to come.

In July, 1988, I left the Democratic National Convention in Atlanta to join Danny to watch a news conference at which Jesse Jackson endorsed Michael Dukakis, attempting to bring unity to the two candidates’ competing factions. Danny was in the hospital on his deathbed, an AIDS victim, and we held hands as I joked to ease the mood. “Look, Danny, after everything we’ve been through, here we are witnessing history. That could be us on television: a Black man and a short man competing for the presidency.”

Danny was young, gifted and Black. He grew up in Savannah, Georgia in a family that was at the center of the civil rights movement. His father was a schoolteacher and instilled an understanding of the importance of education in his son. Danny’s mother, Mercedes, was a local board member of the NAACP and is credited with effectively organizing students as the Georgia field secretary for the NAACP Youth Councils in the early 1960’s. He inherited his family’s intolerance of bigotry and, I like to think, saw in me a well-traveled, street smart, color-blind Jewish kid from St. Louis Park who did not define our friendship as one revolving around our different skin tones.

For me, Danny’s skin color was not an issue. I was raised in a home where prejudice was not expressed. Rather, I vividly recall Rabbi Moses Sachs speaking of the moral imperative to support the Civil Rights movement as television brought me images of vicious dogs and fire hoses being used against Negroes in Alabama. My personal exposure to people of color before I left for college was limited; my senior class at St. Louis Park High School boasted one African American member. Chet, the owner of Road Buddy’s in St. Paul was just a dark skinned restaurateur always happy to see little Sammy eating in his rib joint. The ribs were the best ever; his skin color was not an issue. Waiters on the trains to Chicago in the early 1960’s were a curiosity because they reminded me of the icons on the Cream of Wheat box as they served me Cream of Wheat, but their skin color was not an issue. The African American judge my grandfather introduced me to in Chicago when I was in my early teens was a role model (pre-indictment) because he was a judge and a friend of Papa’s; his skin color was not an issue.

Danny helped me maintain my enlightened viewpoint by sensitizing me to the poison spread by those less enlightened. I lost the ability to close my eyes to the injustices suffered by persons of color at the hands of overt and covert racists. Danny introduced me to the work of Lorraine Hansberry, giving me another view of the challenges faced by the African American community in my beloved Chicago. He shared war stories about growing up in the South and described his mother’s work with the NAACP in Savannah and, later, in New York City. He defended, with reason, the need for the African American students at Carleton to have an exclusive and exclusionary residence. Most importantly, he strengthened my tolerance radar, allowing me to recognize unacceptable behavior in others and in myself. Over the short 18 years we had, Danny and I became as close as brothers. When I graduated from his tutelage, I could no longer assume racist behavior was not an issue because it was not directed at or by me personally.

Which brings me to our current presidential campaign. As the election approaches and Senator Obama’s lead in the polls grows, speculation grows over the accuracy of the polls once respondents, and those they represent, actually vote in the privacy of the voting booth. The Bradley Effect, used to describe the difference between pre-election polling and actual results in former Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley’s failed California gubernatorial campaign, suggests that poll respondents are reluctant to admit an unwillingness to vote for an African American candidate. As a result, the polls are skewed in favor of the African American candidate and actual performance in the election is disappointing.

Analysts considering to what extent the Bradley Effect will manifest itself in this year’s presidential race are really asking us all to consider the extent to which we remain a covertly racist society. To what extent do we pay lip service to the concept of equality yet harbor internal doubts that a person with darker skin than previous occupants of the Oval Office is somehow not up to the job, that he (or she) will give “those people” positions of responsibility or, worse, the “thinking” goes, cater to concerns irrelevant to and inconsistent with the best interests of the white majority? To what extent will the electorate channel racial stereotypes instead of making racially blind decisions based on more relevant, important attributes of the respective candidates?

Those of you who have been reading Prairie Pondering know which presidential candidate has earned my support based on the color-blind analysis. Unfortunately, there is nothing I can write here today that will eliminate race-based decision making across the board. The best I can hope for is to get readers to engage in some introspection and, given the opportunity, challenge others to do the same.

I realize that most of you were not fortunate enough to have your tolerance factor nurtured by Irv Stern, Rabbi Moses Sachs, or Danny Wright. You missed my dorm room conference with U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, a family friend of the Wrights or visits to the Connecticut country home of another friend of Danny, Judge Constance Motley, the author of the original complaint in Brown vs. Board of Education, first African-American woman to argue a case before the U.S. Supreme Court and first African-American woman appointed to the Federal bench. You missed the opportunity I enjoyed to interact with successful, brilliant public servants, who just happened to be African-American.

A resistance to similarly accept the concept of Barack Obama as our president because of his skin color is grounded in ignorance and a foolish unwillingness to deviate from perceived historical “norms”. In 1841 Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his classic essay Self Reliance, reminded us that “a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .. “ The expanded quote reads “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall.”

I suggest that questioning the propriety of voting for a person with the extraordinary qualifications and life story of Barack Obama because white folks have never before granted a person of color such enormous responsibility differs not from concerning yourself with your shadow on the wall.

We have pursued this grand experiment in governance for nearly 220 years. During the same timeline, science has progressed to the point where we understand that the human species’ capabilities are not dependent upon skin color. We need to be smart about this. The enlightened among us need to do everything it can to make sure that the most qualified candidate is elected president on November 4th. It has never been more important to do so.

Unfortunately, there are too many who choose to live in fear and ignorance and adhere to their foolish consistency to free the country of the scourge of racism in the next two weeks. We address that reality by working harder than we have ever worked to overcome the racism of the unenlightened. We devote our time and money to Senator Obama’s campaign. We identify one or more of Senator Obama’s supporters who need a ride to the polling place on November 4th and make sure they are able to vote. We speak out in public and private gatherings and challenge racist pronouncements. We send an e-mail to everyone on our mailing list, admonishing the recipients to stand up for the ideals we aspire to as a nation. Hell, we write a blog.

The effort is not an easy one. It seems frustrating to have to work so hard to achieve victory in November when the choice is so clear to those of us who compare the candidates on relevant merits. I could add the link to President Shepard’s speech in The American President, again, to motivate you. But, if you’ve read this far, I’ll treat you instead to another passage from Self Reliance:

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string. Accept the place the divine providence has found for you, the society of your contemporaries, the connection of events. Great men have always done so, and confided themselves childlike to the genius of their age, betraying their perception that the absolutely trustworthy was seated at their heart, working through their hands, predominating in all their being. And we are now men, and must accept in the highest mind the same transcendent destiny; and not minors and invalids in a protected corner, not cowards fleeing before a revolution, but guides, redeemers, and benefactors, obeying the Almighty effort, and advancing on Chaos and the Dark.”

1 comment:

Irv Stern said...

Damn good. Could have been a little shorter. Who was the black judge that was
indicted and for what?

There was also another great African-American whom I admired greatly. He was
a lone black face in an all white suburb, who had the audacity to open a Vet Cliniic,
who served on the school board and then went on to become our State Senator.

If it were not for Bob Lewis's untimely death, I would not have served in the State

I still remember him coming to the Shiva for your Mom. He was a dear friend and I
still miss him to this day.

Much love,