Friday, September 25, 2009

Why I'm Grateful for Joe Wilson and the Fury of Racists

By Keli Goff

I'm not sure when it first hit me, that the future of our country, particularly when it comes to race relations, is really looking up. Perhaps it was when a member of the Boston Police Department referred to Professor Henry Louis Gates as a "banana-eating jungle monkey." Perhaps it was when an angry town hall protester ripped up a poster of Civil Rights icon Rosa Parks -- while others in the crowd applauded. Or perhaps it was when Congressman David Scott was greeted with a swastika spray painted outside of his office and hate mail calling him the N-word all in the same week. Or perhaps it was when Congressman Joe Wilson demonstrated such a lack of respect for our president when he shouted "You Lie," at him during a presidential address.

You've probably assumed that I am being sarcastic in my premise that these incidents are proof that our country is on the verge of significant racial progress but I'm not. During a recent conversation with my mother she expressed fear that Speaker Nancy Pelosi may be right, that the current vitriol being exhibited at town halls and elsewhere is not only uncivil, but down right scary and could soon boil over into violence. We then began to reminisce about the Civil Rights Movement, which my mother lived through, a time when racist rhetoric turned deadly. That's when it hit me: People turn angry when they feel that they are losing ground.

Racist domestic terrorists did not bomb the church that killed four little Black girls in Birmingham, Alabama because they knew those little girls would never attend high school with their children, but because they knew that one day they would. The Ku Klux Klan murdered three civil rights workers, not because they were confident that Blacks would never get the right to vote, but because they were terrified that they would -- and were on the verge of doing so. (It is worth noting that this year the town in which the workers were murdered elected its first Black mayor.)

There are plenty of Americans -- good, fair-minded people -- who do not support the President's proposed health care reform, at least not yet. I consider myself among them. But there are others, who as former President Carter asserted, are simply unhappy that a Black man is president.

And that gives me hope.

Because the reason some people's racism has been brought to the fore is because the America they thought they knew and loved is becoming a different one before their very eyes; an America in which a Black man can get elected president and a Latina can become a Supreme Court Justice. But most of all an America in which their very own children applaud both. This is what really has racists in a tizzy. Every study shows that most of their children do not share and will not pass on, their legacy of intolerance and hate, but instead may end up dating or marrying an Obama or Sotomayor of their own one day.

You know what else gives me hope? The fact that even in a state like South Carolina where the Confederate battle flag still flies near the entrance to the capitol, citizens have seen fit to punish Congressman Wilson in the polls for the lack of respect he showed our president, who as we all know, is Black. If that's not proof of progress then I don't know what is. So let the racists wail. Let freedom ring and let progress come.

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Thursday, September 10, 2009

The National Conversation on Race

Just as America was starting to pat itself on the back for coming a long way on race issues, America is closer to having an honest conversation about race than ever before. Some have cautioned against using the "racism card" to describe the vitriol that Republicans the Birthers and the Schoolers have slung toward President Obama. Yet, during this season of disrespect toward the President, we have seen more than ideological disagreement. From a Congresswoman calling for a Great White Hope to save the Republican Party (isn't Michael Steele the leader of the Republican National Party) to parental hysteria about the President's back to school speech, people who are not used to having a black leader are finding tacit ways to revolt.

South Carolina Republican Congressman Joe Wilson shouted “you lie” at the president during his address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night. Few would doubt this was a sign of disrespect that most Americans would find objectionable. But beyond Wilson's callous disdain for the office of President, it is important to understand the racial connotations involved, and the climate that gave rise to them.

Contemporary racism is not largely about lynching or legalized segregation. Rather, we must be reflective about the myriad ways in which we are tacitly socialized to believe stereotypes about persons of color. Those beliefs reside in our subconscious and affect our attitudes and behaviors in ways that we often do not recognize. All Americans who are attentive to our potential for prejudice have been in situations where we “catch” ourselves with a racially insensitive thought that surprises us. Other times, those thoughts drive our actions without our knowledge. If we only define “racism” as overt bigotry, we ignore the most important elements of a system that continues to perpetuate it.

I am not saying Joe Wilson is a bigot, Rather, the consistent branding of President Obama as “other” by his opponents has created a context within which it is perceived that Obama need not be treated as other presidents have been treated. The creation of that “otherness,” while possibly motivated by racial animosity, is certainly rendered more effective as a result of deeply held negative predispositions about African Americans.

For at least two years, his political opponents (including Democratic opponents during the primary) have attempted to portray Barack Obama as “not one of us.” He has been, at various times, referred to as communist, elitist, corrupt, a terrorist sympathizer, foreign, fascist and even racist. In short, he is everything that we believe America is not. He is not “one of us.” He is “other.”

It is no surprise, then, that some parents felt it dangerous to let this stranger talk to their children on Tuesday, and it is no surprise that at least one member of Congress believed that it was appropriate to hurl an insult at him during a formal address. Keeping in mind that there is a small but vocal group of Americans and conservative leaders who continue to perpetuate the story that Obama is not a legitimate president because of his birth status, perhaps we should not be surprised that this president, then, does not command even the most minimal level of respect from some of his elected political opponents.

By and large, Americans go out of their way to excuse such behavior as being impolite and not at all related to race. If one believes that the threshold of what is to be considered to be “racist” is that an epithet must be hurled (e.g., if Wilson would have yelled, “You lying nigger!”), it is comfortable to believe that in a “post-racial” nation, such behavior is divorced from the nation's rich history of oppression and White supremacy.

Attacks on President Obama are not, in and of themselves, racist. They might be made without racist intent; they can even be made without racist effect if they do not find greater results because of ingrained stereotypes about African Americans. Criticizing the president for being willing to push for a clean energy bill, for example, is likely to be devoid of racial effects. However, arguing that he is lying when the evidence contradicts you, is corrupt when there is no reason to believe so, or has friends who are criminal when he does not does have a racist effect because it is easier for us to believe such claims about a black man.

Some of the folks who make racist appeals may be aware that they are doing so, but others very well may not. Irrespective of intent we must be aware that a context of “otherness” has been established around this president that set the stage for him to be treated differently than other presidents.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Obama School Speech Sends the Right Message to Many Who are Usually Tuned Out

By Dan Brown

Deep into the presidential campaign last year, I was stunned to learn that a significant number of my high school students had never heard Barack Obama speak. They'd heard of him, but had no clue about anything he stood for. This was shocking to me; I listened to the guy and his surrogates practically every night on TV. I knew the Obama brand inside out. My D.C. pupils, living in a news vacuum, had had no exposure to him.

I set to work on filling this void by introducing campaign-related reading and activities in my class. However, there is no doubt that, for all sorts of reasons, many students across the country are simply tuned out.

That's why Obama's back-to-school speech matters. It probably won't make a significant imprint on kids who read the paper everyday, with parents discussing current events. They've already heard the president discuss personal responsibility. They know how their president speaks.

However, the back-to-school speech does have a real chance to touch the typically disconnected students, and that is a substantial upside. These kids are not absorbing the most basic civics information at home; school has to pick up the slack. There is a psychic cost to not knowing a larger world beyond your immediate day-to-day life; American kids need to know their president, whether they support his policy agenda or not.

They don't need to back his healthcare agenda or weigh in on his military spending, but they do need to know what he's about. That's the barest minimum that a responsible, participatory democracy should settle for.

In the actual speech, the messages Obama offered were all positive, non-controversial, and framed in ways that students could understand. My favorite snippets:

On discovering talent through schoolwork:

Every single one of you has something you're good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That's the opportunity an education can provide.

Maybe you could be a good writer -- maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper -- but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor -- maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine -- but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a senator or a Supreme Court justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.

And no matter what you want to do with your life -- I guarantee that you'll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You're going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can't drop out of school and just drop into a good job.

On embracing challenges and failure:
But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won't love every subject you study. You won't click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won't necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That's OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who've had the most failures.

On effort:
You're not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don't hit every note the first time you sing a song. You've got to practice. It's the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it's good enough to hand in.

Don't be afraid to ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, it's a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don't know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust -- a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor -- and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.

I look forward to showing the speech to my students when they return to school tomorrow. It's sad that a ludicrous kerfuffle launched by Glenn Beck lemmings has precluded many kids from hearing their president's ideas--- from horse's mouth. There's a substantial benefit in taking a few minutes in one school day for all students to listen to their chief executive address them.

President Obama delivered an excellent speech; here's hoping America's students listened. Now the real work begins again to support and drive our nation's youth to realize their profound potential.