…my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. Chris Rock
Some weeks back Barack Obama handed out this year’s Presidential Medals of Freedom. It’s the highest civilian honor he can bestow. Most of the honorees stood before him as he draped the medal around their necks, their faces beaming. Some were honored posthumously. Among those were James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, the young civil rights workers brutally murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi in 1964. It’s been fifty years. Martin Luther King, Jr. has since become an icon, a national holiday celebrated in his honor. An African American Attorney General presides over the Justice Department. The son of a black Kenyan father and a white Kansan mother sits in the Oval Office and presided over the ceremonies. And then there are Ferguson and Staten Island. Some things refuse to change.
The long history of uneven treatment for people (especially men) of color is so well known that repeating here is hardly necessary. Suffice it to say, we have the highest incarceration rate in the world. While only 13% of our population, nearly 40% of the imprisoned are black. Drivers of color are more likely to be stopped, walkers frisked. Ferguson and Staten Island are not outliers, just recent examples of a disgraceful and unending norm. Their only distinction is that they happen to be the headline of the moment. While demonstrations, like the one held in DC and the 25,000 who marched in New York the past Saturday, might continue for a while, be sure this, like all of-the-moment stories, will fade to be replaced by tomorrow’s headline. They may not be totally forgotten, but will no longer “merit” media attention. Some things refuse to change.
Obama is moving into the final leg of his presidency. He is our first black chief executive and one has to wonder if we will have another, certainly any time soon. When he raised his right hand to take the oath we told ourselves the country and we had changed. Right. Not only aren’t we living in a post racial society, we are seeing the racial divide in much sharper relief than was the case on January 19, 2009. Presidents, unlike any other elected official, never recede from the front pages, from our television sets or computer screens. There is no “out of sight, out of mind” because they are never out of sight. And Obama’s presence has become a lightening rod for many in the white community and, in a different way, for the black community as well. For the first, the president’s visage personifies shifting demographics that signal the old order is slipping way, an assumed eternal control and domination crumbling beneath their feet. For the second, is the recognition that this singular achievement, however monumental, is not enough, is no magic bullet. Despite all the progress, their lives remain substantially unchanged. And that is a shared feeling that transcends race; part of what drove this year’s election results. The statistics looked better (employment numbers, housing prices, stock market) but real life for many folks remains challenging — a sense of losing rather than gaining ground.
Race or more broadly, fear of “the other”, may be the single most important driving factor in current politics. For sure it’s an over simplification to say so, but Republicans have become the (largely white) party of “our kind of people”, while Democrats stand for the “other”, those who challenge “the cherished American way”. And this fear of the other, or more accurately challenge posed by the other, is what so enraged Republicans about the president’s executive order on immigration. Make no mistake; immigration has become a largely racial issue — read dark skinned Latinos. That the instrument of some modest forward movement is a black man, the prototypical other, plays hugely in the lawsuit initiated and led by former Confederate states. Let me put it differently. Do you really believe for a moment that there would be such, or even any, outrage if the “undocumented” were white Canadians coming from north of the border? I don’t think so.
After all, Canadians are people who look and act “just like us” and (unless they are from Quebec) speak English as their native tongue. We wouldn’t have to spend money on teaching them “our” language or acculturating them. They will fit right in, won’t threaten our neighborhoods or way of life. They won’t be a burden on taxpayers, on hard working Americans. Maybe they will compete for or take our jobs, but how will we even know since they look and talk just like us? They are not that different than someone from Alabama who settles in New York, or someone like me who now lives in North Carolina. We may all talk a little different, but in the end we’re good blenders. You get the point.
Four years after the March on Washington and in the last days of his life, Spencer Tracy joined his longtime love Katherine Hepburn in making, the 1967 film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. In it, the politically progressive Drayton’s confront their daughter Joanna’s totally unexpected decision to marry John Prentice (Sidney Poitier), an African American physician. The poor girl was just following what her parents had taught her — living beyond racism. The pending merger of two families, one white and one black, is played out at an awkward dinner. In the end — this is Hollywood after all — both sets of parents, along with the Drayton’s black housekeeper, come to terms with change and offer their blessing. The film is full of clichés including the wisdom of women over men (thank you Ms. Hepburn and the wonderful Beah Richards) and the decider role of the men (Tracy and Roy Glenn, Sr.). So what do you think? People on the Hill always complain that President Obama doesn’t socialize with them. Wonder how many dinner invitations he got from those same folks in the years before he became famous and was running for president? Right, again.
America is a land of bubbles and fortresses. We live in neighborhoods and Congressional districts with people just like us. We interact with the likeminded and generally stay close to our tribe at dinnertime and everywhere else. For the most part we marry and build families that mirror that bubble mentality. I don’t say that judgmentally. But it does reflect our mainstream American reality. Is it changing? Yes, but painfully slowly. We’ve been nurtured to distance ourselves from the other, however defined. The sad thing is that we’re paying a very high price for maintaining that comfort level, those old ways. Just look at our dysfunctional politics.
Chris Rock (on a promotional tour) and Frank Rich met recently for a conversation published in the current NY Magazine. It’s a wide ranging one that reminds us, if we didn’t already know, that Rock is a man of great depth and insight with wide ranging interests and knowledge. The subject of race came up as they sat together in high up in New York’s Mandarin Hotel. Rock, like any African American, has faced racial prejudice, but he is hopeful. “Grown people”, he says, “people over 30, they’re not changing. But you’ve got kids growing up. I almost cry every day. I drop my kids off and watch them in the school with all these mostly white kids, and I got to tell you, I drill them every day: Did anything happen today? Did anybody say anything? They look at me like I am crazy.” So Rich asks, “And you think this change is generational? That it has nothing to do with Obama?” “It’s partly generational” answers Rock, “but it’s also my kids grew up not only with a black president but with a black secretary of State, a black joint chief of staff, a black attorney general. My children are going to be the first black children in the history of America to actually have the benefit of the doubt of just being moral, intelligent people.”
Of course Chris Rock is probably right. There has been huge progress and the young generation gives one great hope. I have been working of late with a start up lab in neighboring Durham, helping young entrepreneurs clarify and sometime create their brands. These are impressive and open-minded people, curious women and men with talent, builders of the new and interesting. Race doesn’t enter the picture. I recently encountered a group of third-year Naval Academy cadets, classmates of a good friend’s son. They are equally impressive, open-minded and interested in contributing to their world. Hopeful signs no doubt, but Ferguson, Staten Island and the reaction to immigration reform are still with us. The older generation, carrying all the baggage of what they have been so carefully taught, remains in control. The signs are that young people may not want to follow their lead, indeed rejects their ways. Only time will tell. Maybe when they get their piece of the pie, they too, will revert, will try to hold on. History and the present environment suggest that may well happen, that some things refuse to change. Please, let me be wrong.