Saturday, November 8, 2008

Becoming color blind

There's something sad about the fact that I can't actually believe we have elected a black man President. And it's even more sad to realize that I am surprised that no one has taken a shot at him yet.

(We interrupt this message to clarify that sentence one above does not indicate that I think there is anything wrong with a black man being President, or that I don't like black people, or that people ought to shoot at them, or anything like that, ok? Let me also clarify that I prefer the word "black" to "African American" because it's a lot easier to type. Let's move on.)

It's all sad because my disbelief says that in my heart of hearts I must be believing we are a more racist and hateful people than we really are - and since I am a generally positive person, and out loud I say I believe that people are innately good, it disturbs me that this other cynical, snide part of me thinks so poorly of American society. It's dark in the corners sometimes.

You've got to admit that it is astonishing that a country that has been so messed up on race issues could have gone so quickly from segregation and systematic, government-sponsored oppression, to electing a chief executive of mixed race. Two generations ago we were still classifying people as mulattos and quadroons and octaroons and such. There are people living today who witnessed - even took part in - mob lynchings of "uppity" black men. Just nine Presidents ago black people were still being sent to the back of the bus, to the "colored" water fountain, away from the restaurants and hotels that were for "whites only." One generation ago the leading man of black politics was Jesse Jackson - a guy with about as much chance of getting elected President as - well, John McCain, two weeks ago. Only 16 years ago (1992) white America was quaking in its collective boots as LA was torn apart by the race riots that followed the Rodney King verdict. How did we come so far so fast? Or have we really changed at all?

You might make the case that there has been real evolution in the hive mind - that to some significant degree we don't see color first anymore but just see people. Consider if you will the great many high profile people of mixed race who dominate our pop culture - Tiger Woods, Derek Jeter, Vin Diesel, Mariah Carey, Jessica Alba to mention just a few - and the resulting perception that it is not out of the ordinary to be mixed, and it does not mean your life comes with limitations. In fact, maybe it's an advantage now. Could be that King's dream has been realized, with a bonus. It seems particularly clear that the younger you are, the less you care about race. Is it possible that racism will simply die off, one racist at a time?

Or on the other hand, you might make the case that this election of Obama has been an aberation - that so many people were alienated by the eight years of Bush the Younger they would have voted for the proverbial "yellow dog." In that scenario the race question is not germane, and you can theorize that nothing has changed, and the next provocation will bring out all the same reactions. 

Almost certainly, there will be some event that tests the question of whether we have moved beyond race-based politics and society. I will lock the snide and cynical part of myself in the basement, and choose to hope that we pass that test.

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