Subitled: Race relations in the age of Obama.
Every year in Tallahassee, the City holds something called the Day of Dialogue on MLK Day, and I’ve never been, nor will I ever go. It probably isn’t fair to do this, but I imagine it as being the same old people saying the same old things year after year. In my imaginary scenario, black people excoriate white people for the sins of their ancestors, the white people apologize, and the black people say we forgive you, now make it right by compensating us for suffering of OUR ancestors. Be blessed, go forth, and give money. Which brings us to the topic of affirmative action, which is a topic for another day.
Barack Obama hit the nail on the head when he said that white people, in times of anxiety, get resentful and cling to their guns and religion. He later apologized, saying that was a dumb comment, which it was from a political point of view. Never mind that it was true. But he left out a whole category of white people, like me.
I hate to even bring it up, but I was living in Memphis in April of 1968 when Dr. King was assassinated. I’d been there less than a year. The following year, I marched with the sanitation workers and thousands of other people in his memory. But things changed. I submit to you the following word: Whitey. Whitey was the new term for Nigger. If you were white and believed in justice and equality, you had less respect than if you had been an avowed racist. The theory went that at least you knew where racists stood, whereas the rest of you were namby-pamby, wussy, guilt-ridden, impotent, bleeding-heart liberals. The idea was, I trust you more if you try to shoot me, rather than try to be my friend. It was a strange time, and I think I was more at the heart of it than some, living in Memphis.
The effect of this move was that it turned you, if you were white, into a person whose only defining characteristic was the color of your skin. OK then. Haven’t you been there, done that? Turnabout is fair play. Guess that feels good temporarily, but I fail to understand how making enemies of your friends is a good diplomatic strategy. That is the REAL change that Obama has brought about, in my mind. The gun-clingers are not going to be big fans, but what he’s done is to bring disillusioned white people back into the picture.
Because make no mistake, white people elected Obama. There aren’t enough black people in the U.S. to have elected him, even if every black man, woman, and child voted for him. That isn’t to diminish the struggle of black people for over 200 years to keep the idea of freedom and justice alive. Maybe you think that if not for you, it would not have happened. But I don’t think so. Might have taken longer.
Last night, I happened to catch the Tavis Smiley show on PBS. Usually I’m not up that late, and also, I can’t stand Tavis Smiley. Didn’t like him on NPR, don’t like him now, but at least he has good guests. Last night it was Seal. Seal has just come out with an album of covers of old soul songs. First we were treated to a video of Seal’s cover of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long (Can’t Stop Now)”, then Seal singing live Sam Cooke’s song, “A Change Is Gonna Come”. That song was recorded in 1963. Think about the history and the timing of that.
It took a while, but the change has happened.