Monday, March 31, 2008

Race Race Race

That Obama speech tickets line was longer than I thought. Some people who saw the end of it said it was more than a quarter mile from end to end. Even some people who got tickets didn't get in to hear the speech, I'm told.

The mayor offered him a change of venue to the municipal minor league baseball stadium, but the campaign refused it. Better to have a guaranteed overflowing tech school gym than risk a half-empty stadium, I suppose. You'll piss off 100 people locally but impress 10,000 nationally.

I think he also coveted the tech school for its name: Thaddeus Stevens, the great abolitionist, who founded it in his will. Never mind that, for all his commitment to anti-slavery, Stevens was a mean-as-dirt hardball politician, who occasionally represented slaveowners against their runaways early in his legal career, bitterly persecuted Masons, and who derailed Winfield Scott at the 1840 Whig convention by -- literally -- dropping a note to the Virginia delegates that suggested Scott just might have abolitionist tendencies.

The stadium is named for the local shopper publication. I think "Obama speaks at Thaddeus Stevens School" probably has more political cachet than "Obama speaks at Clipper Magazine Stadium."

The school is mostly minority students, but apparently no tickets were set aside for them. In exchange for the headache of having to spend the morning trapped in a media event, they didn't even get to see the speech.

This has been a painful election season for my newsroom co-workers, who of course are all Democrats or left-of-Democrat Independents. The two most vocal and persistent anti-Bush, Chomsky-quoting, Michael Moore-worshipping employees split when the campaign began: One went for Kucinich, the other for Ron Paul. For a blessed interval, they weren't speaking to each other. Recently, alas, they've patched it up. Every time some good news seeps into the paper about Iraq, one will drift over to the other's desk, and they'll rehearse the talking points about war crimes, etc., etc., until both feel comforted again, then they'll drift apart.

But for the more mainstream Demos, the frustration over the ongoing Hillary-Obama fight is palpable. For me, as a non-Democrat, it's like watching professional wrestling: "Wow, that looked like it hurt. I wonder if it's real?" I can enjoy the spectacle from a safe distance, popcorn in hand.

Ever since 1840, American presidential elections have doubled as national discussions of issues. Some more than others. This one has that quality, and among the topics necessarily up for discussion is race. Obama has -- sometimes, fitfully (Icepick is right) -- offered a fresh start to that discussion, with a post-Civil Rights perspective and a broad embrace of Americans, including alienated whites.

That, to me, is a wonderful new beginning. The old discussion of race in America devolved into minutia, after its breathtaking charge. In 1940, more than two-thirds of whites believed blacks were less intelligent. Today, less than 6 percent think so. Before World War II, in the North as well as the South, fewer than 40 percent supported any kind of desegregation. Today, between 95 and 100 percent of Americans support the idea of integration. That percentage among whites is actually higher than among blacks.

Then we hit the wall. I'd describe the wall in terms used by Tamar Jacoby in her insightful book "Someone Else's House": "...integration will not work without acculturation." This is the kind of suggestion that makes a lot of people squirm. Many blacks don't like the idea of adopting a set of values from outside. A lot of whites can empathize with that. But, as Jacoby writes:

"That's part of why we couldn't win the War on Poverty: when it turned out that it required extensive acculturation -- programs to change people's habits, their attitudes toward school, work and the law -- many otherwise well-meaning whites lost the will to fight the battle. For more than thirty years, we tried to ignore the development gap, and those who dared to mention it were written off as bigots. But the difficult truth remains that people who cannot speak standard English or have never seen anyone hold down a regular job have little hope of fitting into the system or sharing its fruits. If anything, the past few decades have taught us that the preparation gap is wider than we thought, and more needs to be done than we ever imagined: everything from getting poor mothers into prenatal care to teaching job applicants about deferring to a boss's authority. What makes this hard is that acculturation is along, slow process -- one that will require a kind of patience till now largely lacking on race matters."

As a result, the discussion on race has largely devolved into the kind of things you bicker about when you've given up on real progress: Scrubbing little totems of Confederate imagery off Southern state flags; should "Huck Finn" be banned in schools? Why can't white people use the N-word when rappers use it all the time?

Obama, at times, starts to frame a new discussion that just might break through the deadlock. I was born in the middle of the Cold War and the Civil Rights movement. I've lived to see one through to a conclusion. I'd like to at least see the other get on track for one.

There will be no pure hero class and no pure victim class in it. We'll have to give that up. That view has been part of the simplified picture sold to us by civil rights hagiography. Reality is more complex. Everyone comes to this discussion with baggage of one sort or another. Everyone with the capacity to be selfless for the sake of patriotism, or to behave otherwise.

So, in the part of this election that is about choosing a president, I am probably not on Senator Obama's side. But in the part that is a national discussion, insofar as it touches on race, I'm on his side, as I see it, all things in the balance, the ugly but unavoidable rhetoric of Rev. Wright included.

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