Obama, Racism, and Ignorance

Kai at Zuky (link via Jon Swift, and thanks, Jon, for the recommendation) takes a look at the race talk surrounding Barack Obama’s candidacy and doesn’t much like what he sees.

White folks often complain that race is a rhetorical minefield which makes them nervous about saying the wrong thing. But for people of color, race is an actual minefield rife with physical dangers and obstacles and conflicts. As Chris Rock has said, “I ain’t afraid of Al Qaeda; I’m afraid of Al Crackuh.” Which is a cute line, but also deadly serious, because as the newspapers continue to remind us, racist hate crimes happen. This isn’t hypothetical or abstract; for instance, I myself had my life threatened a couple years ago by an NYPD officer who assured me that he might “shoot a fuckin’ chink and trust me, I can get away with it”. Ain’t that America. Excuse me if such experiences leave a foul feeling.

All of which is quite true, but his prescription for repairing the dichotomy is about three steps down the road.

If white folks are genuinely interested in discussing racism without worrying about saying anything that could be construed as racist, I have simple advice: Become an anti-racist. Study the issue, listen and learn, join the struggle to end racism and white supremacy. If you do that, I’m pretty sure that you’ll lose the nervousness about race talk.

I wish it were that simple. To non-whites, it must look that way, but it isn’t. Kai quotes a Brit, Ewan MacAskill, from a piece in The Guardian on Obama:

I thought the US had moved on, and race was no longer such a decisive issue. But I haven’t been in the US long enough to know. The primaries should provide evidence of whether there is a disconnect between who Democrats say they will vote for and who, in fact, they do vote for.

It would be refreshing to think they will vote for Obama because he is a good speaker, is exciting, described the Iraq war as dumb before the invasion, has good policies (still to be announced) on health and education – and not because of the colour of his skin. Maybe I am being naive.

Kai replies:

In other words: I wish we didn’t have to talk about blackness. (all emphasis in the original quotes)

Well, so do I. I wish we didn’t have to talk about a candidate’s race or color or ethnicity or religion or native language or which toothpaste s/he uses. I wish it was irrelevant and we were past all that. MacAskill is a Brit. He isn’t used to a poliitical candidate’s race being an integral part of the election brouhaha. It generally isn’t in England.

But I take Kai’s point: that sometimes keying on an ideal is a way of avoiding discussion of day-to-day realities, a discussion which is much harder and much more frought with minefields than pollyanna-ish and far-off fantasies of perfection. I don’t think that’s why MacAskill was doing it but that’s why a lot of people do it. Conservatives in particular like to use The Ideal to both evade reality and excuse their racist antipathy to Affirmative Action, among other things. As in many other areas, on the Right denial functions to prevent the neccessity to acknowledge nasty little attitudes like racism, classism, authoritarianism, and eliminationism. To them, if you’re not talking about it, you aren’t doing it.

But though this kind of denial is all over the place, a much bigger problem in the center and on the left is simple ignorance. Whites know almost nothing about blacks, black culture, or black life, and what little we think we know comes from all the wrong sources – movies, tv, the news. While integration has helped enormously with the first step toward eliminating racism – recognition of black people as people first and black second – it has done nothing about the second step: familiarity with them as the very individual human beings they are. Mark Gisleson writes very personally about this phenomenon.

American attitudes about race are pervasive. I grew up in an all-white, all-Christian part of Iowa. Race wasn’t an issue and I read about the Civil Rights movement with disbelief. I could not understand why some people were so rude to others, and, of course, my school didn’t teach me anything about it other than telling me the Civil War was fought to free the slaves (and thank you Mr. Crimmings for having told us that wasn’t true, even if your take did subscribe a little too heavily to Southern apologism).

But after I left home and moved to the “big city,” I was immersed in a racist culture and, after enough time passed, I stopped seeing African Americans with the naive whoa that person is dark skinned eyes of a farm kid and discovered that frequent exposure to the n-word had created this bizarre phenomenon whereby I would see a black person and my brain would reflexively respond with NIGGER.

My case is somewhat different. Unlike Mark and many other whites, I found myself immersed in ghettos and solely black neighborhoods for a couple of years, rarely seeing another white face for weeks at a time. I did not learn from the outside but from the inside, as it were, and it was, no two ways about it, a profound shock to my system. I thought, like many Northern whites, that “racism” meant Jim Crow and was confined to the South. I learned, the hard way, that it wasn’t.

But I also learned something far more important: that Black America and White America are two entirely different places existing side-by-side like neighboring universes, contiguous but touching only occasionally at certain limited points in their orbits. While blacks of necessity know a good deal (though not everything) about the dominant white culture, whites know almost nothing about the black culture that is almost literally right next door. For instance, I don’t know of a single white except myself who’s ever been to a black theater, of which there are dozens in black communities all over the US. Until Tyler Perry broke out with Medea, I doubt 1 in 100 whites had ever heard of the “chitlin’ circuit” (a derogatory term nowadays but one with a proud history that goes back to the 19th century) even though the theaters are large and the crowds are huge and enthusiastic, not to say boisterous. Often only a few blocks from the white theater district, they are nevertheless all but invisible to the rest of us.

So rigidly separate are these worlds that they rarely if ever cross each other’s path. In the 2 years I spent playing jazz with a black quintet in black clubs located in black neighborhoods, I don’t think I saw more than a dozen white faces besides my own when I looked in a mirror or caught sight of myself in a shop window. Everywhere I went I was known as “the white kid” because I was the only one, and inevitably viewed with suspicion at first. What was I doing where I didn’t belong? Was I a plant? an informer? a slummer? And when I did see another white face, I found myself thinking the same thing and with the same suspicion – who is he? what’s he doing here?

The biggest surprise was the sizable black middle class, people who lived in all-black residential neighborhoods, owned their own homes, drove non-Cadillac cars, and went to church every Sunday. Once they got used to me, my whiteness didn’t bother most of them as much as the fact that they never saw me in church. Churches in the black community are, in ways the workplace is in white communities, the center of social interaction. I hadn’t had even a clue such people existed, let alone that there were so many of them.

Some of these things are known to the white community and some aren’t, but the totality of them, what they add up to, what they make when you see them as a whole, is entirely different from the normal white perceptions. It’s almost like being on an alien planet where everything is sort of recognizable on the surface but underneath something completely different is going on. I suppose that’s how blacks must feel every morning when they leave home to go to work in the white world. I don’t think things have changed so much that their feeling of being outsiders has been lessened to any significant degree.

There are commonalities here – love, community pride, respect, family – that are just as powerful, maybe more powerful in the end, as our differences but whites don’t talk about them because they don’t know or don’t believe that they exist. It is that depth of ignorance that is one of the biggest stumbling blocks to ending racism, though it is certainly not the only one. But it’s important to remember that Jim Crow laws were intended to keep the races from mingling, not just because the supremacists wanted to keep the race “pure’ but because, as Dewey Phillips proved in Memphis, once you let them mix, whites started asking why you were keeping them apart.

Integration has started the job but blasting away the kind of ignorance that separation engenders has to be next.

3 responses to “Obama, Racism, and Ignorance



  2. Why do you think it’s all about YOU all the time, Jerry? How come “white folk” like YOU won’t lift a finger to get along with anyone else? What, everybody’s supposed to kowtow to YOU? Everybody’s supposed to bend over backwards trying to get along with YOU but you don’t have to do a damn thing to get along with them? That’s a leetle 1-sided, ain’t it?

  3. Yawn. Booooring! Gee, I thought you were eventually going to bring up the fact that Obama’s minister and lifelong mentor is a despicable racist. Then I thought you might end the article with a little insight into the black community and note that racism exists there too. Nope, just cowardly dribble all the way through.

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