Race and the “hardworking middle class”: Obama’s Farewell Address

Posted on February 20, 2017. Filed under: Economics, Politics, U.S. Constitution | Tags: , , , , , , |

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…

(APPLAUSE)

… 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.

(APPLAUSE)

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.

(APPLAUSE)

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.

(APPLAUSE)

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.

(APPLAUSE)

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.

(APPLAUSE) (CHEERING)

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

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Lincoln Log-rolling

Posted on February 12, 2009. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , |

It’s Lincoln’s birthday, and I’m deep in writing a paper, so I will note the day with a little log-rolling: you can find my articles on Lincoln and his true heroism, virtue, and belief in equality at these locations:

First of my four-part series on Lincoln: Truth v. Myth: President Lincoln, slavery, and racism

Celebrating the Emancipation Proclamation

Lincoln Rebuttal: Who Black People Hate

Read and enjoy and remember President Lincoln with gratitude today!

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Holiday Inn–never okay!

Posted on December 23, 2008. Filed under: Civil Rights, What History is For | Tags: , , , , |

The New York Times has been running an end-of-year appreciation of classic holiday movies. Today, A. O. Scott actually appreciated the Bing Crosby movie “Holiday Inn.”

I have already expressed my view of this movie in this blog. Its (horribly) extended blackface song sequence, with whites singing in “Negro dialect” about “Fadder Abraham” is unconscionable, sickening, and impossible to excuse or rationalize. A. O. Scott does both.

The problem with this terrible racist scene, for Scott, is that it  “dates” the film “somewhat”, and makes it “unpalatable” for “current sensibilities.” But “it’s important to remember that this movie is more than 65 years old.” Problem solved! My current sensibility is satisfied now.

Racism is never excusable because there was simply never a time in history when people did not know racism was used to hurt and oppress others. And frankly, to excuse a movie playing when people I know were alive for being from some ancient, distant time (65 years ago) is beyond lame. There is no place for accepting and softening crap like this in the United States of America at any time, but perhaps especially now.

So this “pure, confectionary diversion” may work for you if you’re not black and you don’t have a current sensibility; otherwise, skip it.

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We all have a dream

Posted on August 29, 2008. Filed under: Politics | Tags: , , , , , , , |

“I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation.”

This could have been Barack Obama’s opening line at the DNC on August 28, 2008, as he accepted the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for president. But it was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s opening line on August 28, 1963, as he addressed the Americans gathered at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC for the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

That 1963 gathering was a “demonstration for freedom” because Americans of all backgrounds met to demand the fulfillment of our nation’s founding principles of freedom of opportunity and justice for all. The 2008 gathering was also a demonstration for freedom, because again Americans met to demand that our nation’s leaders respect and obey the Constitution and Bill of Rights when governing.

But it was also a demonstration of freedom, of the enormous progress this country has made since 1963. In that year, if you had said that in 45 years, within the lifetimes of most of the people there at the Lincoln Monument, a black American would be close to winning the presidency, you would have been ridiculed. Few could have believed that King’s three little children would live to see a black American close to becoming president (by narrowly beating out a heavily favored female candidate; throwing that in would have made people in 1963 wonder what parallel universe was coming). It wouldn’t have been cynicism or despair that fueled the disbelief, but a pragmatic understanding of how much would have to change to reach that moment.

So a lot has changed. But, more accurately, Americans have grown and evolved, challenged their own prejudices, and worked for change. It’s true that some Americans simply submitted to change, others grudgingly went along with change, and others refuse to change.

But even more miraculous than those who worked hard for change are those who were simply born into it. Americans born in 1990 find it hard to believe that restaurants were really segregated, that they wouldn’t have gone to schools filled with kids of all races, that mixed-race marriage was once illegal. Much as they can’t believe you once couldn’t talk about homosexuality, let alone have gay TV or movie heroes, American young people can’t believe racism was once government policy.

Are many young Americans still racist? Sure. But for most Americans, racism is becoming more and more a personal thing, a private prejudice that one might feel comfortable sharing only with a few others, or expressing obliquely. Like sexism, and homophobia, racism is becoming something fringe, that only a radical element is willing to pronounce publicly. Rather than having one’s racism comfortably mesh with a full personality, now if one is publicly racist, at the office or on the stump, one is labeled a wacko and marginalized.

Nineteen sixty-three was indeed not an end, but a beginning. Beating racism underground to a shameful lair in the soul is just the start. But we can celebrate our progress. Barack Obama’s nomination is a watershed we can act on to destroy racism. Children born in this year will find it hard to believe a black American had never been nominated by a major party for president until 2008, because by 2026 it will be a commonplace. Women, gay Americans, Jewish and Muslim Americans will all be able to become president. This is a moment to push more change, and it would be fatal, as Dr. King said, to overlook the urgency of the moment.

Does that sound ridiculous? As ridiculous as saying in 1963 that a black American would be the Democratic candidate for president in 2008?

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Time to retire “people of color”?

Posted on June 16, 2008. Filed under: American history | Tags: , , , |

I was reading Lacy Ford’s fantastic article “Reconfiguring the Old South: ‘Solving’ the Problem of Slavery, 1787-1838” and had reached page 116 where Ford discusses how slaveholding American southerners began to sour on the idea of sending black Americans “back” to Africa because the slaveholders felt that it was really a plan to end slavery rather than a plan to get freed black people out of the country and “whiten” it. I found this statement:

“As the Georgia legislature later explained, whatever support the [colonizers] initially enjoyed in the lower South resulted ‘from the general impression in the Southern states’ that its object ‘was limited to removal’ of the ‘free people of color and their descendants and [not slaves].”

What phrase leaps out at you? “People of color.” This phrase was being used in 1827 by slaveholders as a euphemism for formerly enslaved black people.

I was under the impression that “people of color” was a 21st-century phrase (hey, my specialty is the 1600s; I’m not up on everything). But now we see it has a long and ugly history, just like every other word used for black Americans, from Negro to the other n-word to darky and even colored.

In fact, “black” seems to be the least-baggaged term used to describe black Americans.

The real problem with “people of color” is that it makes it so that black people are the only people on Earth who have a race. If a black person has “color,” that implies that a white person does not. Therefore race remains a stigma, something white people are free of. All other people are raced, but white people just are. It’s as if whiteness was the norm and all other people have been tainted with a color.

“People of color” reminds me of a conversation I heard years ago. Someone described another person as having an “ethnic name.” To which the other person replied, “What name isn’t an ethnic name?” That is, what name is not from a geographic place? Jones is an ethnic name. Mitchell is an ethnic name. All names are ethnic.

And all people have race. We are all people of color. To cleanse white people of race by referring to black people (and sometimes Asian or Latino people) as people of color is to say, “Normal people are white, but other people are colored.”

White is a race. It’s even a color. Everyone has a race, everyone has an ethnicity. Whites are not magically free of racial markers or racial history. For too many centuries white people have been tempted to see themselves as distinct from people of other races. But they’re not. We’re all colored and we’re all people, and it may be time to retire yet another term that seems to contradict that.

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Lincoln rebuttal: who black people hate

Posted on May 3, 2008. Filed under: Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics | Tags: , , , |

I noticed on my blog stats page that someone had clicked into my series of posts on Lincoln and slavery from a site called “Stuff Black People Hate”, which is either the precursor or follower of the site “Stuff White People Love.” I clicked the link to the site and there, posted on March 27, 2008, was an article about how vile Lincoln was and why black Americans hate him.

It’s good to know that my series on Lincoln was timely.

The post quotes one of Lincoln’s 1858 Senate race speeches, in which he talks about how he will never let inferior Negroes mix with whites. Then, it quotes an 1865 speech in which Lincoln says he wishes that only those black Americans who served in the Union army could have the vote.

Both quotes are used to prove Lincoln’s racism in the most dishonest way. First, yes indeed, Lincoln was flailing during that Senate race, battling with his own racism. He wanted the grand ideal of equality for all, but was totally unequipped mentally to bring it about.

You could use that quote to lambast Lincoln’s racism–IF that was the end of the story. But, unlike most people then and now, Lincoln’s attitude toward race changed pretty radically over a pretty short period of time. Five years after that 1858 speech, he had fought hard to get Congress to pass the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing enslaved people in war zones permanently and setting the legal stage for abolition. Seven years after that 1858 speech, he convinced the Congress and the people to abolish slavery in the U.S., driving the Thirteenth Amendment through a skeptical Congress and nation.

In 1865, his musings on allowing only intelligent or veteran black Americans to vote can be viewed as racist–unless you know something about American history. At that point, no black Americans could vote. The Fifteenth Amendment would not come into existence until 1870. So Lincoln is saying that even though black Americans are not yet allowed to vote, those who served their country in war should be allowed to.

Having pushed through the EP and the Thirteenth Amendment in just two years, Lincoln was likely waiting to include the right to vote for black Americans until his Reconstruction plan began.

So once again I’m gravely unconvinced by the same old misinformed and tired arguments against Lincoln. Yes, he began as a racist. But he didn’t end that way. To insist on slandering him is only to insist on spreading the myth that American freedom and principles mean nothing. They only mean nothing when we ignore them.

If black—and white—Americans want to hate someone, how about Bing Crosby? I saw “Holiday Inn” on TV the other night. In it, Crosby runs an inn open only on holidays. For Lincoln’s birthday, the inn was set up like a plantation, with all the whites in black face, including Bing, who sang a song in “negro dialect” while his blonde girlfriend, with her hair sticking straight up in her role as “pickaninny”, rolled her eyes and also sang about “ol fadder Abraham” (after complaining, while her blackface was put on, that she had thought she was going to get to look pretty).  This was in 1942.  It was perhaps the most revolting thing I’ve ever seen on television, or anywhere else. Sometimes the 20th century looks worse than the 19th.

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Lincoln: Hero, not villain; truth, not myth

Posted on May 1, 2008. Filed under: Civil War, Lincoln, Racism, and Slavery, Politics, Truth v. Myth | Tags: , , , , , |

Here we are at the last post of my Truth v. Myth series on Lincoln and slavery.

 

With the Emancipation Proclamation, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, Abraham Lincoln finally abolished slavery in the United States. By which I mean to say, slavery was finally abolished, someone finally acted to end it, and Lincoln finally lived up to his principles. “Finally” seems harsh to apply to someone whose actions and convictions changed so radically in just four years (1858 to 1862). “[Viewed] from the abolition ground, [Lincoln was] tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent… Measuring him by the sentiment of his country… he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined,” said Frederick Douglass. Abolishing slavery through the Emancipation Proclamation “is the central act of my administration, and the great event of the nineteenth century,” Lincoln said. [Guelzo, Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, 250, 186]

 

So how can it be that Lincoln is called a proslavery racist so often today? Lincoln was, of course, slowly but surely tarnished by education in this country after the Civil War, when he slipped from hero to villain as southern Confederate sympathizers rewrote his motives and actions to make him a fool. Texas and Florida are two of the largest textbook markets in America, and their textbook committees made sure the “right” information was published in their American history books throughout the 20th century.

 

And as the dream of true equality seemed to slide farther and farther away from black Americans during Jim Crow, Lincoln’s deeds and promises did seem hollow. By the 1960s, when the horrors of violence inflicted on black civil rights protesters and leaders had been witnessed by the entire nation, a few key black scholars and leaders rejected all white efforts on behalf of race equality as empty, including Lincoln and his Emancipation Proclamation. Lerone Bennett’s work, naming Lincoln as “a reactionary white supremacist” was particularly damaging.

 

But this kind of treatment of Lincoln was just an early symptom of Americans losing faith in America. “The withdrawal from Lincoln by African-Americans has moved in step with the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress,” Allen Guelzo says, and I think he is right. [Ibid. 248] I also agree with him when he says that “It would be special pleading to claim that Lincoln was in the end the most perfect friend black Americans have ever had. But it would also be the cheapest and most ignorant of skepticism to deny that he was the most significant.” [Ibid. 11]

 

Myth: The Civil War was not fought over slavery.

 

Truth:  It was, and deliberately so.

 

Damage done when we believe in a myth: Guelzo has it cold: when we believe the absolute worst of myths, we see—and are part of—“the emergence of a profound nihilism in the minds of many Americans who see no meaning in American freedom and no hope for real racial progress”. There is meaning in the Civil War when it comes to racial progress, and if there was hope that was realized in 1863—in the middle of a nightmare war, after 203 years of entrenched slavery—then there is hope today.

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Should God–and the rest of us–damn America?

Posted on April 29, 2008. Filed under: Civil Rights | Tags: , , , , |

I heard once again today the section of pastor Jeremiah Wright’s recent sermon in which he claims that God should damn America for its racism. This has caused uproarious debate.

This is not really an argument about racism or race. It’s about Truth v. Myth. And I’m afraid Wright is pushing Myth.

The attitude that says America should be damned–no matter how metaphorically–for its racism is the same attitude that says America is, has always been, and shall always be, a lie. It has never been a land of freedom, or truth, and is a shameful sham that weighs us down. America, from its Declaration of Independence to it 2008 presidential campaign, is a worthless heap of lies.

This is what really makes those who do feel angry about Wright’s comments feel that anger. They see that he is dismissing America as a lie that ought to burn on the scrap heap. And those listeners, as Americans, as part of America, take offense.

Contrast Wright’s approach to that of Martin Luther King. King didn’t strike a blow against America, he struck a blow for America and what it stands for. He recalled for all Americans, black and white, that their country is dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. He reminded us that segregation and racism are un-American. He would not be fooled into believing what racists said, which is that racism is consistent with American values, its founding principles. He would not cynically accept that there was no point working with whites to recover those principles because those principles were bankrupt.

King reminded us of who we are, of who we are supposed to be, and he forced us to live up to those values. He didn’t let anyone off the hook for America’s failure to live up to its principles, and for that we owe him so much. He was fired up for America, and led millions of others to feel the same way.

The genius of this (besides the fact that it was true) was that anyone who opposed him came off looking anti-American. They were revealed as racist drags on the democratic system. They looked like the moral dinosaurs that they were. They were forced to attack women and children to make their point, and Americans revolted at that.

So we should not damn America. We should rescue it. We can do that by recalling our history and our founding principles and doing our utmost to yank the country back into line with those principles whenever we can. That way, anyone who opposes us looks like the anti-American obstacle that they are.

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