Response to Virgil
by, 11-09-2008 at 03:06 PM (4225 Views)
My response to Virgil's recent blog entry http://www.online-literature.com/forums/blog.php?b=6743 (itself a response to a post of mine to a recent blog of his) became so lengthy that I felt it was more practical to make it an entry of my own:
Thanks for the response, Virg. First, I realize I came off a little more partisan than I intended when I referred to the Bush years as "divisive." To begin with, you're absolutely right that there have always been disagreements among political opponents and bipartisanship, and that the president is always criticised by opposition. I also agree that there have been divisive presidencies before, under both parties, in the past. I think, though that Bush's presidency is going to be remembered as among these more controversial presidencies. There has been an escalation in this bipartisanship in the last several years that has created really strong and unhealthy animosity between republicans and democrats that, in many cases, has not been at all flattering to either side. I think there has been a much stronger cultural division along party lines, much more emotional involvement and polarization along party lines than under Reagan, or Bush senior, or at least the first part of the Clinton years. To be fair, I think this rift along party lines can be partly traced back to the Clinton scandal. I think that undermined the respect people felt for the presidency and opened the door for bad feelings between the parties. Follow that with controversial decisions and war under the Bush administration, and you start getting people thinking more about the agenda of their political party than the good of their country. You have one side talking about "real" and "fake" Americans and dismissing their opponents as out of touch, unethical, snobs, and another side dismissing their opponents as ignorant backwoods rubes and calling a sitting president (among the tamer things) a monkey. I don't think either party has been coming out looking all that great during the Bush years, and so in my comment I meant it when I said I hoped that we could reign back some of this particularly virulent partisan sentiment and think about ourselves as Americans first and members of political parties second, and I both respect and admire the way you expressed that sentiment, that regardless of our political leanings we should all be able to unite as Americans with pride in our nation. I think it is no accident in this election that McCain was emphasizing "Country First" and that Obama was saying there are no blue states and no red states, just the United States. Both candidates were recognizing that, whatever you think the reasons may be, Bush's presidency has had the effect of polarizing the political parties, and I was hoping that whichever of the candidates won, he would be able to mend some of that divide and get us all to place the good of our country first again.
As for the racial issue. Again, I absolutely agree with you that formally institutionalized racism is no longer a tremendous problem in this country. I also agree with you that there is a need and responsibility in the black community to develop some pride in self and to have the confidence not to believe that you are limited by the color of your skin or the position of your birth.
I'm well aware of that fact. I think it is shameful. I don't quite understand the point you're trying to make with this statistic though. As someone who lives in the area you allude to, I think it is very clear that one factor in the problems going on in these neighborhoods is the inheritance of the deeply segregated racial divide that existed in Chicago's past, and that hasn't yet vanished as completely as one might wish. I'm not saying that race is the only factor in the violence around here, which it certainly is not, but it sure doesn't help that there's a deeply ingrained history of racial resentment and conflict.Here’s something else to put into perspective,more people have died from violence in Obama’s inner city of Chicago than American soldiers in Iraq over the course of the war. No one can tell me that racial victimization is the cause of that.
I don't believe in using the excuse of racial victimization, or any victimization as a catch all excuse for all the problems of a person or a community. Certainly that person or that community must also do their best to help themselves. All the same, living on Chicago's South Side, I've gained some insight into how difficult, even impossible, that can look from a certain perspective, and how much the after effects of segregation still have a very real impact on peoples' lives in this community. I can see how a kid growing up in one of the tough communities to the west of Hyde Park is living in a world full of people who look like him, and they are living in a sh**y neighborhood, while most of the white people he sees are better off and in nicer areas. I can see how this makes him feel a divide between himself and other races, and makes him feel, based on his own limited experience, that the lives of black people are generally speaking confined to a ghetto environment. In turn, I've got to say that there is the problem on the other side that the people that you think of as scary in this neighborhood tend more often to be black. It's actually just a fact that more (though not all) of the gangbanger, threatening looking young men are African American around here, but that then perpetuates an association of black men with crimanal activity that isn't healthy for anyone including those young men themselves. While I agree with you that it's important not to make this a "crutch" or an "excuse" for someone not to make something better of him or herself, I also think it is important to acknowledge the resentment and the anger that people carry with them based on the way that they've experienced the world. You can't simply dismiss race as an issue in the lives of people who think of it as a very real and immediate issue and expect that to help them any more than the other extreme of dwelling too much on race as an issue is going to help them. I absolutely agree with you that I think Obama's election is going to make a big difference in terms of how people in neighborhoods like this see themselves. I think a lot of black people in poor neighborhoods like this really have believed for years that it was impossible for a black man to become "the man," and the symbolic force of this election is going to have a big impact. Already I hear people talking differently, and more to the point sense people feeling differently about the unspoken racial divide around here. I think that the mantra "yes we can" has the potential to make as effective and practical a change in the unofficial segregation that still lingers (though in a much more complex and nuanced way) in the ghettos of our country as "we shall overcome" did when making those huge strides to end institutionalized segregation. So, to an extent I think you are right that Obama's election may help to bring an end to all people, including African Americans themselves, thinking in terms of racism being strong enough to hold black people back. I certainly hope so.
Putting aside the complex issue of impoverished black neighborhoods, though, I think it's still important not to say generally speaking that we have no racism in this country anymore. Again, I agree with you if you only mean institutionalized racism, and I agree that I don't think racism should be an "excuse" for a person not having applied themselves sufficiently to be successful in life. I also agree that there are other kinds of prejudice that are a problem in this country, including economic prejudices against low class people, or religious prejudices, etc. These are also problems for our nation. I wouldn't say that serious prejudice against social class isn't a problem that holds people back, and I wouldn't say that racial prejudice isn't a problem that continues to hold people back or at least to affect their lives more than you suggest. You are right that we all have personal prejudices, and that it is sometimes a fine line between judging the activities and the lifestyle of another person and beginning to judge and dismiss the person themselves. Still, I think there are racial prejudices that remain in this country that are distinctly different from a prejudice against tattoos or other lifestyle choices (and I'm sorry, I actually just don't understand how the flack Palin got as a political candidate is analogous to racial prejudice). I do think that it's productive to not focus on race when it isn't neccessary, but I also think that we should still feel a responsibility to focus on racism when it is neccessary.
One reason that I think it is important not to say that racism no longer exists at all is that I've seen how that claim can be used as an excuse to ignore the racial problems that do still linger or to act ignorantly. I remember once speaking (rather heatedly) in college to a group of white guys who thought it was "funny" on Halloween to dress up in stripped prison costumes, wear black face, and call each other n****. Their response was that this was totally cool because obviously there wasn't any real racism anymore, but it made a black friend of mine feel both angry and frightened at what kind of thinking those costumes might imply. In that case, it was really important to stand up and say that what they were doing was racist, and that racism wasn't over as long as people were behaving like that. It was important to acknowledge that it was racist when a friend of mine (who looks just as classy or not as I do, but happens to be black) was asked to leave a high end store because the saleswoman didn't think people like her belonged there (the woman didn't know we were together, and I not only wasn't asked to leave but was greeted with a broad smile, even though ironically my friend is the one who could have afforded their merchandise). I was just talking to a young woman who said while she was living in New Jersey she had a boyfriend who, when things started getting more serious after several months, told her that he could have fun with her but his parents would never ever approve of him actually marrying a black woman. Tell her racism isn't affecting the way she lives her life. There's also the more overt stuff that still crops up. How is racism dead when my black neighbors in California wake up one morning shortly after Obama won the primary to find swastikas tagged on their house? Or my friend who put out an Obama sign that was painted over with the N**** word? Or another friend of mine who has relatives living in the south who had a cross burned on their lawn just a few years back? I'll agree that these incidents are no longer typical in our country, and I have no problem with not making racism a central issue when it doesn't have to be. I certainly don't think that incidents like this define our country in any way or are a large part of our culture the way they once were, but at those times when stuff like this happens, you have to call a spade a spade, and you have to say that racism does still exist.