What's All This Then?

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Friday, April 04, 2008

It’s encouraging to see Barack Obama narrowing Hillary Clinton’s lead in Pennsylvania - or at least her lead in poll numbers. The way these things get reported, it’s as though they were marathon races with actual measurable distances between the lead runner and the rest of the field. But it’s still discouraging to hear about the division along racial lines in that state. So far, it seems, Obama isn’t attracting as many white male voters as he would need to overtake Hillary. Bob Casey might help, but it’s an uphill battle.

A week or two ago, I was watching a news report from somewhere in Pennsylvania. I don’t remember the town but I think it was from a bowling alley - a type of establishment which Senator Obama should decline to visit, no matter what the inducement - although in his defense, I heard someone on the radio explain that most bowling balls available at bowling alleys are designed for right handed bowlers and Obama is left handed. I don’t bowl so I have no idea if this is true or not. The people there were identified as "working class." All in view were males - and according to the reporter, not a single one could be found who planned to vote for Obama. One gentlemen who was interviewed said he had been considering Obama but had been turned off by the Reverend Wright’s comments. This wasn’t someone who had enough interest to seek out and read the context in which these remarks were made - but that is most likely a reflection of the kind of consideration given to candidates by most voters. Which is why we get a George Bush at the national level and a Rod (Governor of Illinois) Blagojevich at the state level. A second who was interviewed briefly on camera - a grizzled, elderly gentleman - was asked if race had any influence on his vote. He looked just a little embarrassed as he hemmed and hawed for a few seconds before admitting that yes, he wouldn’t vote for a black man.

And that’s still where we’re at in the year 2008. No matter what image is projected by Oprah Winfrey and Tiger Woods and Condoleezza Rice, no matter how many statues we may erect to honor the likes of Ernie Banks and no matter what percentage of the black and white population says that race relations have improved in recent years - we are still, in this melting pot of a nation, a separated peoples - separated by race, by religion - by region and by language. And so it is that we have voters who won’t vote for a black man - or a white woman - or a Catholic or a Jew - or a Republican or a Democrat. Not because of what they’ve done or what they stand for - but because of who they are or at least who people think they are. I add that last comment because of the phenomenon of people running for political office changing their names in order to induce people to vote for them. I remember some years ago a black judge in Chicago getting lots of support from Jewish voters because he had a "Jewish sounding" name. He didn’t change it. It just "sounded" Jewish. The voters had no idea who they were voting for.

Almost five years ago, on July 22, 2003 - I wrote a piece titled "Separated By A Single Language" - basically expressing puzzlement at the acceptance of the black English accent as a normal state of affairs - something not questioned or discussed publicly. The closest thing to public discussion of this phenomenon is when there is the occasional criticism of some black person for "talking white." That’s about on a par with the silly discussion that arose in the early days of Obama’s candidacy about whether he was "black enough." But the persistence of that black accent and the fact that it doesn’t seem to be a matter of concern - or at least publicly expressed concern - to either black or white America - shows that the gap between the two ethnicities remains wide.

Obama talks about "bringing us together" but he has a formidable task ahead of him if he should achieve the Presidency. Despite his stirring words at the 2004 Democratic convention , there are indeed Red and Blue States that make up the United States of America and some are as different from each other as distant foreign countries with different laws and languages. I know there are some parts of some states where I wouldn’t feel comfortable sauntering into a local bar for a quiet drink. In some places I wouldn’t even feel safe. Just based on who I am and who they - the locals - are.

If we were gathered together in some part of the world like Eastern Europe instead of the Americas, I could easily envision multiple separatist movements - regional groups of people wanting to set up their own independent nations. Some might want to establish a theocracy. That’s how deep I think the differences are between Americans based on their race and ethnicity and religion and region. The melting pot concept has done little to bridge those differences and in this election year - with the very real possibility of a black skinned man running for and maybe being elected to the highest office in the land - I have no doubt they will become more evident as we get closer and closer to November.

Some of the right wing pundits are mocking Obama, saying that he was supposed to be the candidate who transcended race but now he’s the candidate of racial differences. I can agree and disagree with these pundits. Obama is the quintessential melting pot candidate who defies racial stereotyping - yet, spurred by the nonsense over Reverend Jeremiah Wright, he is someone who has challenged us to confront our narrow prejudices and misconceptions about each other. It’s one of the reasons I support his candidacy. It’s been 44 years since the Civil Rights Act of 1964 - and 40 years since the assassination of Martin Luther King. It’s time that we had the kind of national dialogue that Obama proposes - and it’s time that we had a president who could put the weight and influence of the presidency behind such a dialogue without it being looked at as nothing more than "just politics!!"