Thursday, January 22, 2009

Whites & Right

The most puzzling thing about Obama becoming president has been the near-universal opinion, especially expressed in the mainstream media and the African-American community but obvious in the body politic as well, that his defining qualification for the job is that he’s black. Not that he’s smart or that he’s politically astute or even honest, but that he’s black. This is not to say that he isn’t smart, a good politician, or honest. He seems to be all those things, but public opinion seems anchored in the fact that he’s black, case closed; therefore, he’s qualified for the presidency.

The corollary to this strange phenomenon is that, since blackness is now the qualifier for the job, whiteness is a disqualifier. Has any responsible person ever said about any other president that he was qualified because he was white? These were among the closing words of Rev. Joseph Lowery’s inaugural-ceremony benediction: “help us work for that day when black will not be asked to give back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”

To suggest that this was merely racist is to put it mildly. To suggest that Lowery, a longtime black activist, should be cut some slack is to suggest that he’s been in a cave for the last 50 years. To suggest that he should be cut some slack because he’s old (and therefore “out of it”) is to insult every old person, a patently ageist slur. No, Lowery meant exactly what he said, and, since he was praying, obviously implied that God agreed with him that white folks needed revamping, notwithstanding that he was being a bit presumptuous in informing the Almighty about the sad status of white folks.

Okay...so this sounds like nitpicking! Well...no! Words mean something. The president, in a campaign stretching nearly all the way back to his entry into the Senate in 2005, had made much of “healing” the nation, the clear implication being that he would cause all people to like each other and therefore become totally non-partisan...and all the rest of the warm-fuzzy stuff leading to Camelot, actually common fare for every president wannabe, except that he spent well over $700 million in making his point, something no other wannabe, including McCain, has ever remotely approached.

Then, when his man had attained the presidency, Lowery lowered the boom on both God and white folks, respectively, in arrogantly telling God how it is and how it ought to be, namely, that white folks are wicked and need divine unction to embrace the right. Politically, of course, that would be the wrong side, but that off-the-wall fact alone points out the triviality of the prayer itself...trivial because it condemned an entire population of millions while masquerading as a spiritual exercise.

When the Rev. Dr. Jeremiah Wright, to whose sermons Obama listened for 20 years or so, castigated white folks, the often expressed opinion was that he was entitled to damn white America because of the era in which he grew up. Indeed, even Obama mentioned that as a qualifier for Wright’s remarks in a Philadelphia speech. This approach doesn’t wash, however, for either Lowery or Wright since, beginning at least as far back as the 1950s, when President Eisenhower sent troops to see that black students entered a segregated school in Little Rock, the attempt has been made by white Americans to afford everyone a level playing field.

In 1948, President Truman by executive order ended segregation in the military, although the Navy had already been desegregating since the end of World War II. In the 1960s and since, civil rights legislation and legal opinions have produced tons of opportunities for blacks to get ahead. Wright and Lowery have watched all of this happen. Yet, they continue to rant. They also have watched as a huge segment of the black community frittered away these opportunities, as most notably remarked in the near-total breakdown of the black family, one of the most egregious results being a horrendous education gap for its children, not to mention that more than 40% of the male prison population is black, though black men make up only a fraction of the 13% of the population that’s African-American.

It’s impossible to legislate “togetherness,” so among many citizens, both black and white, the tension will always be there. It’s traced back to the slave era, many generations ago. Blacks blame today’s whites and what they consider white government. Whites, especially in the South, remember that the Civil War was fought almost entirely in southern states, with incredible devastation and death wreaked there. For many, blacks are a symbol of what happened to their ancestors. The wonder is that the nation has held together, and it ill behooves either group or its leaders to keep the racism alive, especially in the year of Lincoln.

Fifty-five percent of whites voted for Obama last year, according to the exit polls, and actually elected him. That’s at least a mild indication that Lowery might be missing something unless he believes they shouldn’t have and has asked God to fix them, since they didn’t embrace the right.

And so it goes.

Jim Clark

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