Monday, March 17, 2008

The problem with progress

Okay, that’s just a catchy headline. The problem isn’t with progress, but our reaction to it. When it comes to social progress, America is like a chronically ill person who stops taking his meds prematurely once the most egregious symptoms are gone.

Regarding racial inequality and black Americans, our country took its “medicine” through civil war, grassroots rebellion and governmental upheaval. As a result, the most egregious symptoms of racism are gone—slavery, lynching “parties,” poll taxes, “sundown towns” and government-sanctioned (or at least ignored) hate crimes against black citizens, are for the most part, sad stories from out past. And so, America put away its medicine. And because we have stopped having substantive racial dialogue, because we have too soon forgotten the sins of yesterday and too long ignored the sins of today, America’s low-grade fever is turning into an infection: a race-torn presidential primary where a nationally-known politician can say without irony that black men are privileged in American culture, and even white progressives are shocked at the anger coming from the pulpit of a black church.

From recent conversations in the media and online, several things are clear to me:

To many people, racism against blacks is something that happened long, long ago. Some folks indignantly point out that slavery ended more than 100 years ago, as if with the stroke of Lincoln’s pen, white citizens embraced their black sisters and brothers as equals, gave them 40 acres and a mule, taught them to read and write, and all lived happily ever after. No Reconstruction. No Jim Crow. It escapes people that a 30-something like me could have a parent who grew up with the specter of lynching, and who was not allowed to attend school with white children, drink from white fountains or ride at the front of the bus; that I could have grandparents who were not allowed to vote until they were well into their 60s. For most black people alive today, egregious racism is not some long ago thing, it a thing that has touched our lives and those of people we know and love.

The mainstream is fairly unaware of the prejudice that black people face daily in this country—from the innocuous, like black women having our natural hair viewed as ugly and unprofessional, to the noxious, like young black men being pulled over by police at gunpoint for driving while black. Black people tend to discuss these things only among ourselves, and covert racism isn’t juicy enough for primetime. Of course, overt racism still exists but even it is more circumspect. There may be no poll tax, but there are other ways of disenfranchising black voters, as we have seen recently in Florida. A black executive may be allowed into the boardroom, but she will likely have to prove far more than her colleagues to get there. As a result, too many people believe the “playing field” is even and that African Americans may even be more privileged than whites.

To the mainstream, acceptance of a people of color means to give them honorary majority status. In other words, acceptance isn’t so much acknowledging and embracing my blackness, but more expecting my experiences to be same as that of the mainstream. It is good, we think in America, to not see race. So, acknowledging race is bad and pointing out racism amounts to “playing the race card.” A black person is much safer in the workplace or, say, running for public office, if they are racially nebulous. Not too black. To show too much ethnicity is to make yourself the “other,” which makes people uncomfortable.

The mainstream is largely unaware of black culture. Unless, of course, black culture means hip hop—that Americans are all too familiar with. But most people don’t know true black culture, in the way black Americans know mainstream culture. I find it interesting how many people were offended not just by the words of Barack Obama’s former pastor, but by his “tone.” I have heard Rev. Wright described as “hysterical” and “angry” by pundits and everyday folk. It confirmed that Sunday really is the most segregated day of the week, because clearly most Americans have never set foot in a black church where thundering from the pulpit is de rigueur. I grew up in a "saditty" black church, far more reserved in culture than Trinity United Church of Christ, but even at First Baptist the preacher knew a good sermon had to build to a rousing, stomping end. People also seem largely unaware of the black church’s ongoing role in the fight for social justice. MLK was a reverend you know. I once took a fascinating class on black radicalism and the church. It traced the role of religion in Africa, in black peoples’ fight against enslavement in America and in civil rights. Incidentally, the class was taught by Rev. Jeremiah Wright. All this shouting and protesting isn’t necessarily part of the mainstream spiritual experience, and so it is viewed as odd and frightening.

The lack of critical discussion about race has allowed these misunderstandings and false notions to stand. As I said in a post back in 2007, race is now theater for the media—a ratings grabber, not an issue to be weighed and dissected. That is why in all the furor over Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s comments from the pulpit of TUCC, no one has bothered to ask if black Americans agree with his sentiments, and if so, why. No one has bothered to ask why there may be a patriotism gap in our country among the mainstream and the marginalized. That kind of discussion takes too much time and too much patience. Yelling and pontificating is flashier and can be wrapped up by the commercial break.

Bad heirs

My generation has to bear some of the blame for the situation we are in. We black GenXers, born roughly 1965 to 1975, are the heirs of the civil rights movement. We thought our parents and grandparents risked their lives and reputations, faced hoses and dogs, shouldered indignities and limitations, so we wouldn’t have to. And for the most part, we don’t have to. We are free to go to prestigious law schools that our parents would never have been allowed into. We can frequent restaurants that would have forbidden service to our grandparents. We can freely exercise our right to vote; hell, some folks are talking about NOT voting in the November election. You know you are free when you can toss away a privilege your ancestors would have died for, that some in fact did die for.

But that’s the point isn’t it. One of my dad’s favorite admonishments to my siblings and I is: “That’s the problem with you all. You think you’re already free.” Now, my dad is not trying to limit my sister, brother and I. He and my mom raised us to believe that we could achieve anything we wanted to. What he is trying to remind us is that while we are enjoying the considerable fruits of his labor, and the labor of others who were involved in civil rights, we shouldn’t falsely believe the battle is won and be lulled into complacency.

And my generation has been far too complacent.

We have failed to take the reins of the civil rights movement, leaving it in the hands of men like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, and organizations like the NAACP that have failed to adequately address new challenges faced by the black community. We have allowed the old voices to be the only voices heard.

We have failed to fight for our history to be accepted as American history, so that slavery and egregious racism and their continued affect on black Americans is not forgotten.

We have failed to speak up about overt and covert racism and its impact on the lives of African Americans, and we have too often let both “isms” be seen as anomalies in a largely-colorblind world.

But it is not all our fault. Sometimes it seems as if, after the Civil Rights Act was signed in 1964, black "leaders" failed to plan for the work that would be neccessary after our most basic rights were won. After all, we want more than just basic rights; we want the rights that every other American citizen has.

As disappointed as I am with the trajectory of the Democratic primary season, perhaps all the racial tension will be good for us. Maybe it will be the thing that shakes my generation of black women and men, and indeed, the country, from its complacency and reminds us that the battle for equality is not yet won. Maybe this presidential race will be the thing that makes us all get real about racism. Maybe this presidential election is the kick in the pants we need to spark substantive discussion about race. Maybe the battle for a Democratic presidential nominee will force America to start taking its medicine again, before it is too late.

UPDATE: Read The New York Times' article on divisions between races highlighted by the Wright flap.

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