Wednesday, July 16, 2008

White & Black & Obama

"Poll Finds Obama Isn’t Closing Divide on Race." So read today's NY Times headline. In the latest New York Times/CBS News poll, it was found that while there is excitement over the prospects of America's first black president, its meaning is viewed quite differently depending on one's "racial" lens. While whites polled believed this historic event would signal a watershed in race relations, blacks polled--while enthusiastic about Sen. Obama--shared no delusions that an Obama presidency would herald a new age of racial harmony. In fact, many believed things to be the same or worse today than just four years or a decade prior. As the Times put it, "Black and white Americans agree that America is ready to elect a black president, but disagree on almost every other question about race in the poll."

Yeah, tell me something I don't know...

According to the poll:

Nearly 60 percent of black respondents said race relations were generally bad, compared with 34 percent of whites. Four in 10 blacks say that there has been no progress in recent years in eliminating racial discrimination; fewer than 2 in 10 whites say the same thing. And about one-quarter of white respondents said they thought that too much had been made of racial barriers facing black people, while one-half of black respondents said not enough had been made of racial impediments faced by blacks.

Hardly a surprise here. The notion that things are not as bad as black people think, that racism and oppression are more so figments of our minds than reality, has been a common mantra among white America as far back as the end of the Civil War. Then, as now, whites claimed blacks had achieved all they desired or needed to succeed and declared the project of ensuring equality over. Deciding 100 years later, after a history of Jim Crow repression, disfranchisement and white terrorism, that perhaps they were wrong, white America--pushed and cajoled by black protest and agitation--decided to once again "level the playing field." Within a few years, white America decided things were much better and blacks had never had it so good--and immediately set about dismantling every facet of the Civil Rights Bill they could, helping in part to fuel the growing Conservative movement. With a black candidate poised to perhaps take the White House, white America is more certain than ever that blacks have "overcome." From pundits like George Will and Chris Matthews, the Obama candidacy is hailed as the virtual "end of racism"--or at least the end of black people whining about it.

The NY Times article noted the following:

In this latest poll, over 40 percent of blacks said they believed they had been stopped by the police because of their race, the same figure as eight years ago; 7 percent of whites said the same thing. Nearly 70 percent of blacks said they had encountered a specific instance of discrimination based on their race, compared with 62 percent in 2000; 26 percent of whites said they had been the victim of racial discrimination. (Over 50 percent of Hispanics said they had been the victim of racial discrimination.)

If anything, experience is one heck of a teacher--provided it doesn't kill you first. Living while black or brown is not something whites have to contend with. Thus acts considered to show subtle or even blatant racism to those who experience it daily, may be lost on others who do not have to live that reality. What many people of color may be well aware of is that while an Obama presidency might be phenomenal, and quite symbolic, it won't solve the everyday problems of race in their lives. Having Obama as president isn't going to lessen unwarranted stops and searches by police. It won't eliminate racial profiling (although the Illinois Senator has admirably worked towards this). And it won't stop the innate concern that getting stopped by law enforcement could inexplicably escalate to a deadly confrontation, even if you're wholly innocent of any crime.

More from the article:

And when asked whether blacks or whites had a better chance of getting ahead in today’s society, 64 percent of black respondents said that whites did. That figure was slightly higher even than the 57 percent of blacks who said so in a 2000 poll by The Times.

That white America so joyously thinks things are getting better with each passing minute is amazing--given the fact that most of them aren't working to end white privilege, that invisible force that permeates institutions, systems, culture and more of our society. You'd think with such rosy outlooks, masses of white America were working daily steeped in studies on whiteness and reading Tim Wise articles by the bulk. If anyone is puzzled at how black people can be so pessimistic about opportunities and race, take the following Mar 2008 report by United for a Fair Economy into account.

*Due to the subprime lending catastrophe, the greatest loss of black wealth is unfolding. People of color have collectively lost between $164 billion to $213 billion over the past eight years.

*Given historic unfair discriminatory practices regarding homeownership, white wealth had been allowed to accumulate while blacks were left behind. Even though blacks began closing these gaps in the 1970s, even at such a steady pace it was estimated that it would still take 594 years-more than half a millennium-for blacks to catch up with whites in household wealth.

*Worse yet, that number was *before* the subprime lending catastrophe struck. Taking the loss of wealth into account, at current rates it would take a staggering 5,000 years before blacks achieve homeowner parity with whites.

We could go on discussing everything from a prison industrial complex, poor healthcare, enviromental racism, unfair drug laws, impoverished communities and more. Add in numerous studies that show continued acts of discrimination--even white felons have a better chance of landing a job than blacks with no criminal record--and we could question just whose view of reality is more accurate.

And the number of blacks who described racial conditions as generally bad in this survey was almost identical to poll responses in 2000 and 1990.

So how is it many are puzzling, that with things as bad as black people claim, we may possibly see an emerging black presidency? The problem here is thinking that Obama the man somehow translates into all of black America. While I never entertained silly notions cooked up by the likes of Stanley Crouch and Deborah Dickerson--who are aptly called the eternal black contrarians--as to whether Obama was "black enough," at the same time I knew that how whites viewed his race had alot to do with his success. Let's be blunt. Obama is just black enough in white eyes without being too black. What is "too black?" Think Jesse Jackson, or Rahim on the block--that is, anyone who might file a grievance against American racism. It's not only that Obama fits middle class American norms, or that he is bi-racial, it's that white America has decided to project on him their idea of what they would like black people to be. Were he anything else, anything that threatened to make them uncomfortable in their whiteness, they'd skittishly run to the hills and steer clear of his candidacy--like many of the more xenophobic members of the right. We almost saw just that, when the white world (liberal, moderate and conservative alike) were shocked to hear his former pastor Rev. Wright utter sentiments commonly heard (even if not wholly believed) in the black community, but utterly alien to white ears. Of course, Obama's appeal as the "friendly black candidate" remade to fit white expectations isn't his fault. But I'm more than certain he is as aware of it, and probably uses it to his benefit--as much as we *all* do in our everday lives.

So it looks like the good news is we may have a black president. The bad news is, we can't substitue a symbolic victory for the real racial and social equality. That is work in which both sides of the Hegelian power relationship will have to engage.

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