Race and the “hardworking middle class”: Obama’s Farewell Address
Hello and welcome to post four in our close reading of President Obama’s farewell speech, now available at The New York Times since it has been ousted from whitehouse.gov. We left off in our last post promising to get to President Obama’s frank address of race, so let’s begin.
There’s a second threat to our democracy. And this one is as old as our nation itself.
After my election there was talk of a post-racial America. And such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race remains a potent…
… and often divisive force in our society.
Now I’ve lived long enough to know that race relations are better than they were 10 or 20 or 30 years ago, no matter what some folks say.
You can see it not just in statistics. You see it in the attitudes of young Americans across the political spectrum. But we’re not where we need to be. And all of us have more work to do.
—The last comment is important. Older members of the HP who describe their childhoods in the 1970s to teenager today may as well be talking about another planet. While it’s true that hidden racism is no better than outright racism, it’s easy to forget what outright racism represents: a consensus that there’s nothing wrong with it. Overt racism is a sign that people feel comfortable expressing racism; they don’t expect anyone to challenge or reproach them. In America 50 years ago, it was okay to be openly, outrageously racist. In America today, it isn’t, because those 50 years were spent stripping away the social justifications of and legal supports for racism. The biological arguments for racism, the “oh come on, it’s just a joke” arguments for racism, the “this is the way it’s always been” arguments, the “this is how God intended” arguments—all were at last relentlessly, righteously assaulted as the nation pushed to live up to its mandate of liberty and justice for all.
But, as the president says, that doesn’t mean racism ended. Racism will never end. It’s part of human nature. And that means the fight against racism must never end. We have to rise above our nature. All of us will always have more work to do, but if we do it, we will get closer to being free of racism, as close as it is possible to come. We cannot afford to have the work of the last 50 years undone by anti-Americans who want to go back to the old days. Their mythical view of an all-white America that was happy and strong and rich would be laughable if it weren’t so dangerous to this nation.
If every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hardworking white middle class and an undeserving minority, then workers of all shades are going to be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.
—This single sentence says so much. Here the president is frank about how neo-conservatives and white supremacist/fascists do indeed frame every economic issue. This began with Reagan. His 1984 “Morning again in America” ad (you can find it easily on YouTube) was 90 seconds of showing only white Americans while a voiceover talked about hardworking people buying houses and getting married and thriving. (Yes, for exactly two seconds a black and a Latino child are shown watching an American flag being raised. But apparently when they grow up these non-white children will not contribute to America’s wealth, strength, and happiness.) Since then, “hardworking” and “middle-class” have come to be code words for “white” and “native-born”. Anyone who isn’t hardworking and middle-class is a non-white criminal. In the last presidential campaign, these ceased to be unspoken codes, as neo-conservatives and fascists and other Trump supporters applauded his description of Mexicans, Muslims, and other non-white immigrants as criminals, and stood by Trump’s refusal to call the KKK a hate/terrorist/white supremacist group.
If we’re unwilling to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we will diminish the prospects of our own children — because those brown kids will represent a larger and larger share of America’s workforce.
And we have shown that our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Last year, incomes rose for all races, all age groups, for men and for women.
So if we’re going to be serious about race going forward, we need to uphold laws against discrimination — in hiring, and in housing, and in education, and in the criminal justice system.
That is what our Constitution and highest ideals require.
—A loud minority of Americans want a zero-sum game. They feel that any and every advance by people unlike them (non-white, immigrant) comes only at their expense. If anyone else wins, it’s because they lose. That’s why they want to repeal laws against discrimination, ironically by claiming those laws discriminate against whites/white men/native-born white Americans. These people are Americans in name only, as they would violate our Constitution to enrich and (so they think) protect themselves.
But laws alone won’t be enough. Hearts must change. It won’t change overnight. Social attitudes oftentimes take generations to change. But if our democracy is to work the way it should in this increasingly diverse nation, then each one of us need to try to heed the advice of a great character in American fiction, Atticus Finch, who said “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.”
For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but has seen his world upended by economic, and cultural, and technological change.
We have to pay attention and listen.
—It’s hard to feel a lot of compassion for white men in western society. They still have every advantage when it comes to being educated, hired, well-paid, catered to politically, and identified as the “average person”. White men do still have all the advantages, even after 50 years of economic, cultural, and technological change. Again, it’s the zero-sum mentality at work: any change for white men is seen as an alarm bell that the God-ordained proper world order is being destroyed. Not all white men feel this way. But the ones who do should only be paid attention and listened to as part of an effort to re-educate them to be Americans.
For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ’60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment that our founders promised.
For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, and Italians, and Poles, who it was said were going to destroy the fundamental character of America. And as it turned out, America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; these newcomers embraced this nation’s creed, and this nation was strengthened.
So regardless of the station we occupy; we all have to try harder; we all have to start with the premise that each of our fellow citizens loves this country just as much as we do; that they value hard work and family just like we do; that their children are just as curious and hopeful and worthy of love as our own.
And that’s not easy to do. For too many of us it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods, or on college campuses, or places of worship, or especially our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions. In the rise of naked partisanship and increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste, all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable.
And increasingly we become so secure in our bubbles that we start accepting only information, whether it’s true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that is out there.
—Bubbles have always existed. They’re not the product of social media. Newspapers in the 19th and early 20th centuries in America were always firmly ideological—Republican or Democrat, nativist or pro-immigrant, for blacks or for whites or for Jewish people, etc. But the harm of bubbles is intensified by social media. Now we don’t even have to know that we are buying “our” paper for “our” people; we can go online to a site that pretends to be objective while it peddles ridiculous and harmful, divisive and undemocratic opinions, or, more and more often, lies. People become used to arguing with other people only when they leave those social media bubbles, not within them, and the right to argue a point is confused with the right to win an argument. It’s enough to make one wonder whether the “information wants to be free” movement that destroyed paid journalism was an anti-democratic plot after all…
Next time: the third threat to American democracy