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the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

March 18th, 2008 (12:32 pm)
thoughtful
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current mood: thoughtful

You know, I've been following this story about Obama's pastor in only the most cursory of ways. I saw a bleeped-out clip of part of it on TV, and thought a.) that he had said "God fuck America" (who bleeps out "damn"?), b.) that that was inappropriate, and c.) that he was talking primarily about the war in Iraq. (I should note that even though I thought it was an inappropriate and un-nuanced thing to say, I was figuring that he had said more nuanced things in the rest of the speech that had been eliminated from the sound byte.) When I became aware that he had said "God damn America" and that he was talking primarily about race relations here in America, my opinion that it was inappropriate slipped quite a few notches. And now I don't really know what to think.

I appreciate Obama's remarks on the subject: his repeated assertion that you can respect someone and consider them an important part of your life without agreeing with everything they have to say; his remark that the problem with the reverend's remarks was not that he talked about racism in America, but that he implied that it was a static situation, that there had been no progress and could be no progress. Because there has been a great deal of progress, and there is still a great deal more to be made, and you just can't discount either of those facts. You can't discount the first because it shows that progress is in fact possible. You can't discount the second because you can't give up.

But I am beginning to get very, very edgy with the responses to this. I'm getting very edgy that the minister (whose name I can't even remember right now, isn't that awful?) is becoming so demonized in the media. I'm getting very edgy that the general consensus that the media is portraying is that there was nothing redeeming about his speech, that Obama needs to distance himself entirely from it all, that the nation as a whole is reacting in horror to the ideas presented and that it needs to be rejected in toto.

Because I have been reading a whole lot of books about the history of race relations in America recently. I just finished reading Mildred D. Taylor's whole series of books about the Logan family -- apart from Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, I'd never read any of them -- which are astonishingly nuanced and well-written and thought-provoking and are all the more astonishing for presenting such complex matters in a way that works so well in the YA format. I spent some time rereading Octavia Butler's Kindred. Reading stuff by Walter White, longtime secretary of the NAACP from its inception through the civil rights era. Right now I'm reading Randall Kennedy's Nigger: A Short History of a Troublesome Word. (And facing the issue of, if I read this in public, how do I hold the cover to obscure the title? Should I hold the cover to obscure the title? I haven't felt able to brandish that word for the world to see, somehow.)

I've been reading so much of this stuff and I have had the privilege, as a white girl, never to have had it impact my life directly -- at least, not in any way I could perceive. I have had the privilege of believing that all that was in the past, that when slavery ended it was over and no longer affected our country, that lynching was over and done with so long ago it didn't matter anymore. I thought we could live in the present, in terms of racial relations, without having the past matter.

And as I've been reading, I just can't... I can't see it that way anymore. It rocks me to learn about the realities of lynching, to realize that there was a time in the lifetime of many people who are still alive today that a black person could be killed by whites, for no reason other than that they felt like it, and nothing would be done. The law did not exist for blacks. President Roosevelt called lynching "a states' rights issue": he equivocated on passing anti-lynching laws because, apparently, states had the right to determine on their own whether blacks could be murdered with impunity.

And there are people alive today who lived through those times, and I cannot see how we can tell them it's over -- not just because the last lynching in this country is not nearly as long ago as we like to think it was, and not just because racism is very much alive and well in contemporary society (a subject I'm not addressing in this post because on account of what I've been reading, my current musings are on the subject of how the past affects the present; see the comments for further elucidation of my POV here) -- but also because that is the sort of thing that just... it lives on long after its physical presence has passed. The memories, the emotions, the ingrained fear and mistrust. It lives on, I am sure, even in those who weren't alive through that time, those whose parents or grandparents were alive in that time, because we are shaped by our families and by our families' lives as well as our own experiences. My mother still consciously and vocally mistrusts Russians because she lived through the Cold War and because one of them got in a car accident with her and then defrauded her insurance company. How can she argue that blacks need to get over the past history of racism in this country when she still hasn't gotten over some Russian guy raising her insurance premiums for a couple of years?

I don't know. This post is lengthy and wandering off-topic and just not making that much sense. I think what I am trying to say is that it makes me feel very, very icky when I hear white people telling black people they need to be less angry about racism in this country. That's what I see happening in the media in response to Obama's pastor's speech, and that's what I wish would stop. I wish we could listen not just to the words, but to the history and the emotions behind the words.

I guess, in the end, I wish that a whole lot of white people in this country would do a lot less talking and a lot more listening on the subject of race. I wish it, I guess, from my own experience. I had the privilege for a lot of years of not having to listen. I thought, moreover, that I could speak loudly and confidently without first having listened. I'm ashamed of that now. Now that I'm trying to do more listening, I'm ashamed.

Comments

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 05:11 pm (UTC)

How can she argue that blacks need to get over the past history of racism in this country when she still hasn't gotten over some Russian guy raising her insurance premiums for a couple of years?

That, I think, is the whole point.

America's not "past" racism, no matter how much pie-in-the-sky liberals would like us to believe, nor should racism be this verboten topic, as many conservatives would like us to believe (lest we actually challenge the status quo).

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 05:17 pm (UTC)

America's not "past" racism,

Yeah.

I want to clarify -- I feel like I left out of my post a condemnation of the active racism that still continues today. I didn't mean to imply that racism is over, but the consciousness of its past still lives on and affects the present. I think the reason that I wrote this the way I did was that I feel like even if racism were completely eradicated today, there would still be a feeling of mistrust among blacks against whites, and rightfully so, because of the history. And of course it's not completely eradicated today. But what I don't get is when people speak with that anger, and my understanding is that Obama's pastor was speaking of the history of racism in this country as well as its present -- when people speak with anger of that history as well as of the present, how on earth can we react with such flippant condemnation?

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 05:20 pm (UTC)

Posted by: Amy (amyura)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 11:03 pm (UTC)

I think, from what I hear on conservative talk radio, that it's the conservatives who want to pretend that we're "past" racism. If I had a nickel for every time a conservative pundit quoted MLK's speech as justification to get rid of affirmative action or to refuse to talk about race, my mortgage would be paid off.

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 11:42 pm (UTC)

Posted by: Doc Manhattan (docmanhattan)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 05:27 pm (UTC)
gordon ramsay

The "official" FCC network TV line is you can say "god" and you can say "damn," but you can't say "god damn" in that sequence. Always made me scratch my head.

Posted by: Spencer Irving (archaica)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 05:30 pm (UTC)

K while watching South Park last night - "You can say "ass" and "asshole" but not "God damnit?" What the hell?"

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:07 pm (UTC)

Posted by: epilimnion (epilimnion)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:20 pm (UTC)

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:29 pm (UTC)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:31 pm (UTC)

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:50 pm (UTC)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:30 pm (UTC)

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:52 pm (UTC)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 07:33 pm (UTC)

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 08:05 pm (UTC)

Posted by: Damian (fanboy_of_zeus)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:58 pm (UTC)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:06 pm (UTC)

Especially because if you believe in God, one of the things God is believed to do in most belief systems is to damn people and things. It's not exactly blasphemous to say "God damn" something, is it?

I mean maybe you could argue you're setting yourself up as God by presuming to know whom he should damn and whom not, but that seems like a stretch. Especially because I'm sure you could say, on network television, "I wish God would send that person to hell."

Posted by: Doc Manhattan (docmanhattan)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:14 pm (UTC)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:14 pm (UTC)

Posted by: electric misfit love machine (eyelid)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 05:51 pm (UTC)

regarding lynching and state's rights: technically it is true that the federal government does not have the police power. Under the constitution, the federal government has no authority to outlaw lynching or murder or rape or anything like that. That is in the province of the states (with exceptions - like murders on federal land). I don't think the federal government CAN constitutionally outlaw lynching.

On the other hand, IF a state outlaws murder, under the federal constitution the state cannot outlaw murder of WHITES ONLY, while allowing the murder of people of color. That is a clear violation of the equal protection clause.

One thing though: while the murder of black people was a horrific crime in the not-too-distant-past, there's also a lot of CURRENT racism going on. People of color are not "having trouble getting over" lynchings from fifty years ago (not to say they should be "over" such atrocities), they are suffering from racism that victimizes them on a daily basis.

When I was in law school there were a couple black guys in my section that I talked to about this stuff after a class. They really opened my eyes to privileges I have that I never even knew about. They told me that, e.g., every time they go into the campus bookstore they leave their backpacks in their lockers, because otherwise they know they'll just get followed around (true for any store). It's not something that would ever occur to me - or to any of their white friends - none of us ever bothered to put our backpacks in our lockers. They get harassed and assaulted by police in situations that astounded me (e.g. getting pulled over and violently assaulted when some other black guy in the area apparently robbed a bank). These guys weren't scruffy-looking or anything - they were solidly upper-middle-class and looked it, so it was clearly all about race.

Listening to their stories made me realize how much privilege I have that I am not even aware of. It is no wonder that they are angry, especially when whites like me have no idea what they are having to deal with.

All that said, of course the pastor didn't do the anti-racist cause any good by saying "G-d damn America." That's just not going to win hearts and minds in this country, period. Of course, why is it such a huge deal and why does Obama need to dedicate a whole speech to condemn it, when McCain is in bed with half-a-dozen insane ministers spouting horrible rhetoric? ...again, privilege.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:02 pm (UTC)

See above, my comment to archaica, on why I made the focus of this post past racism instead of current racism. Like I said to him, my point wasn't that lynchings are the reason that blacks mistrust whites today, it was that even if the only reason they had to mistrust whites today was the history of lynchings, in my opinion that would still be valid. However, it's quite true that recently I've been reading a lot about the history of racism in this country, like slavery through the beginning of the civil rights era, but have not been reading about the reality of racism in modern-day society. As with the history, I've also had the privilege in my life of being largely blind to the present in terms of racism. I think, though, that reading about the history has been a good first step for me, because now I feel like I have a foundation for moving on into reading about more modern stuff. I feel like if I'd done contemporary readings before doing at least a little reading about the history, the contemporary readings would have been decontextualized for me in a way.

I agree that the pastor didn't do the anti-racist cause any good by saying what he said, but I'm not sure that he was trying to win over racists with what he was saying. I don't know the context, but it sounds to me like he was expressing the anger he felt and the anger that I'm sure many of his listeners feel. Calling out injustice is of course one of the many roles of a preacher or minister, and I think one of the most irritating things about this is that people seem to be interpreting it as though the pastor had said it on behalf of Obama's campaign, when it reality that wasn't the context at all. Of course, I can't imagine how he could have thought that, with the close ties he has to Obama, his saying those things would not have negatively affected Obama's campaign. But that's his business. I wish people would talk about it more as a speech that he made and he was responsible for, rather than something Obama needs to take responsibility for. Sure, Obama probably needed to condemn it once. But he didn't say it, and as such, one condemnation would have been enough for me.

(Incidentally, thanks for the info on how lynching could be a states' rights issue. I still think Roosevelt was chickening out, as I can't believe that he couldn't have at least come out in support of states passing anti-lynching bills. I just got hung up on the whole "but murder is illegal and a federal crime, so how can the murder of blacks not be a federal issue? I get it a little more now, but I still think Roosevelt was pussyfooting around the issue.)

Posted by: electric misfit love machine (eyelid)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:30 pm (UTC)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:32 pm (UTC)

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: ~Heather~ <>< (fairy_grrl)
Posted at: March 19th, 2008 02:19 am (UTC)

We watched that movie with Violet, who is nine, and her friend Sharon (who happens to be black) a few months ago. It was a great opportunity to discuss the Civil Rights movement with them and to open the discussion about racism in our community. I wasn't quite prepared for the discussion, as I had no idea the movie was going to raise those kinds of questions for Violet and her friend, but I'm so glad we were able to have that conversation.

(Deleted comment)
Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 06:55 pm (UTC)

This is a great post, by the way.

A while ago you said in a post that you were raised to believe that the only kind of racism was reverse racism, I was wondering about that.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
I don't believe this comment came out so long it has to be split

Oh, dear God. It's just that that was all that was ever talked about in my family. I mean, so to give you the background a bit, my mother's parents were both raised in a neighborhood of Boston where, as my mom puts it, "they never saw anyone who wasn't white and Catholic." (Interestingly, it was in Roxbury, a part of Boston that's now primarily black.) Not only were all their acquaintances white, they were all poor white but not dirt-poor white, and from what I understand they had a fierce pride in not being dirt-poor, in being Catholic, in being white -- they were raised to aspire to be richer white and to look down on those who had even less than they had. My grandparents, therefore, have not at all been able to adjust to this world in which you don't look down on blacks because they're generally poorer and they speak different slang sometimes and... well, anyway. The point is that my grandparents speak often and bitterly of reverse racism, of how the only race it's safe to criticize anymore is whites, how whites are constantly taking heat for things they didn't do, and the real problem is that blacks are running around with their pants hanging down over their butts, shooting people. My mother is a degree removed from that, but only one.

It became a particular concern in high school for me, and was talked about very frequently, because there were a number of teachers at my school who were very incompetent, and due to the Boston Teachers' Union (a union that is, FWIW, much *too* strong IMO) almost impossible to fire. There were several black teachers in particular who were incompetent, but who claimed racism when parents spoke out about their incompetence, and my parents viewed this as "playing the race card" and said that if they had been white they would have been fired. This doesn't seem to be true, as I can vouch from personal experience that black or white, the only reason a teacher could be fired in that school system was for sexually harassing a student. (Those are stories for another time -- of all the horrible teachers who continued to teach because of tenure and the BTU.) I also had a black teacher in seventh grade who did show preferential treatment to black students over whites, and who graded whites markedly lower than blacks. This was also a teacher who one day in class broke down and told us a story about the time she'd seen a pregnant woman lynched -- the teacher was seven or eight years old and her father had forced her to watch ("you need to understand this") as the pregnant woman had her fetus cut out of her stomach and then had been beaten to death to finish off the job. My parents saw her conduct as reprehensible, and talked a great deal about "reverse racism" at that time. However, talk about non-reverse racism was never a part of the discussion in my home. It just didn't come up. So I was raised to believe that blacks may have had a raw deal in the past, but that was all over, and now things had swung to the other side ("pendulum swinging" was a phrase that was frequently used; my father would say that the pendulum had previously swung to the side of discriminating against blacks, and now it was swinging to discriminate against whites, and hopefully someday it would level out). "Political correctness" was generally held to be the culprit in this.

Posted by: Amy (amyura)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 11:09 pm (UTC)
Re: I don't believe this comment came out so long it has to be split

Agreed on the BTU. I was offered a job in the BPS six times over the course of a month and refused in part because of all the bullshit seniority rules. I wouldn't have known where I was teaching until prctically labor day.

Awesome post, awesome comments. FTW.

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC)
part two (!)

On my dad's side, my grandmother actually is shockingly non-racist (and non-homophobic, and really just kind of crazily and instinctively liberal, at least where people and discrimination were concerned. She tells the story of how in the '50s she brought some of her black friends to her home to show them the neighborhood, and literally did not understand what people were talking about when her white neighbors told her never to do that again. "Never do what again?" She also used to hang out in gay bars in the '50s, despite being not gay herself, because two of her best friends were gay men. This drove her husband apopletic, from my understanding.) My grandfather... I don't know what he said around his children during my dad's childhood. But I do know that once I was in the car with him and a bunch of other family members, and some black kids walked in front of his car, and he slammed on the horn and said "You see stuff like that, you can understand how people used to string them up from lampposts." My family burst into nervous laughter, by the way, and later when I confronted my mom about it she said "I know what he said was wrong, but he was raised in a different era -- and did you see the way those kids were walking? It was insolent." (They apparently were not walking fast enough.)

This is, again, long and rambling. I don't know if it's what you were asking about or not. But it's where I started from, in terms of racial perception. And I should note that in the public eye, no one would consider my parents racist. They don't say these things publicly; none of their public behavior would suggest that they believe these things. So it sort of makes you wonder what else goes on behind closed doors.

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 07:59 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 08:38 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 08:57 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 09:12 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 09:25 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 09:33 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Posted by: LizMcK (mckennl)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 09:52 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Posted by: the girl with violets in her lap (slammerkinbabe)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 09:30 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Posted by: Amy (amyura)
Posted at: March 18th, 2008 11:16 pm (UTC)
Re: part two (!)

Posted by: ~Heather~ <>< (fairy_grrl)
Posted at: March 19th, 2008 02:58 am (UTC)

Hrm, what a thought provoking post!

I think about racism a lot. I think going to an interracial church has sheltered me from a lot of the racism here in Montgomery. It's allowed me to think that black people and white people all over really do get along because we get along so well within the church.

Not too long ago, the lady across the street told me and Granny that we are the only people who ever treated her as if she wasn't black. Later that night, Matt and I had a long discussion about racism in our community and how perhaps we tend to ignore it because we think we're doing enough by being members of a mixed congregation.

A few months ago, Violet came home and told me that she and her friend Emily got in trouble on the bus because they were getting out of their seats when the bus was moving. Emily promptly told Violet that the only reason they got in trouble was because they are white.

Of course, my first reaction probably wasn't the most educated. I told Violet that Emily is stupid and that she's not allowed to hang out with stupid people. Then I backtracked and told her why I felt this comment was so inappropriate. I had to remind Violet that she's not entirely "white" herself and that she needed to remember how much her feelings were hurt when a boy on her bus used to tease her about being Chinese (because all Asians look the same, I guess). I apologized for calling her friend stupid but also told her that what she said was indicative of ignorance. We talked a little about racism and how I feel about it, and then I gave her a stern warning that if I ever heard her complain about being discriminated against because she's "white," I would beat her within an inch of her life so she could really understand what it meant to be disadvantaged.

I really like what Obama has to say about racism, and that's one of the major factors in why I am voting for him. I *have* to believe there is hope for this city. I'm not convinced politicians will do much in Washington, but I really like how Obama seems to encourage change at the grassroots level. Montgomery doesn't need laws; we need local people who actually care to change things. I could go on and on about how backwards this city can be, but I remind myself over and over again that if one of the city's largest churches can be truly integrated, then there's hope. And the fact that I can sit with my daughter and talk about racial issues encourages me because I believe that these talks will energize her to make a difference in her classroom, on the bus and with her friends. Hopefully, the next time one of her friends says something ignorant, Violet will have the intuition to stand up and correct her.

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