Log in

No account? Create an account
the girl with violets in her lap [userpic]

March 18th, 2008 (12:32 pm)

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.


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)

I think you are probably right that Roosevelt was pussyfooting around the issue and hiding behind state's rights. In general, though, murder is not a federal crime; it's only a federal crime in an interstate context or on federal grounds. And the murder of blacks vs. whites is a federal issue, but a federal constitutional issue.

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

Heh. Kylie = not a lawyer.

39 Read Comments