12 March 2007

On Race and Politics

The first time Aaron walked into my sophomore English classroom, I smelled trouble. He was wearing a durag and baggy pants, and an intricate network of tattoos snaked around his left forearm. I needed to know very little about him before making my judgment that he would be a problem student. He was black, he was wearing urban attire; that was enough.

If you're reading this blog, you're probably shocked. Luaphacim, you say, how could you be so utterly racist? How could you judge this young man on the color of his skin rather than the quality of his character?

Rest assured, gentle reader, that my judgment was not intentional. In fact, as soon as I noticed it in my head, I strove to banish it. But my point is that it was there, even if only for a very short time. Regardless of my ideological stance, regardless of my good intentions, and regardless of my several good friends who are black, I unfairly categorized Aaron without giving it a second thought -- or even a first one.

This is why I am suspicious of anyone who claims that we can ever, ever, ever have a "color-blind" political atmosphere in this country. Case in point: Chicago Sun-Times columnist Mike van Winkle recently wrote a column entitled "Time to transcend skin-deep politics." A noble call, certainly. But how attainable is it? He writes:
All participants in our national discussion have a stake in the outcome. So it is imperative that we resist the temptation to categorize the candidates running for office and see them as representative of particular groups and limited interests.

It is also imperative that the candidates reach beyond the narrow definitions the press wants to assign them and appeal instead to the broader public interest.

Obama and Clinton's appearance in Selma was a wonderful tribute to the progress our society has made. But a greater test will be whether we can transcend skin-deep politics over the next 20 months.
I agree that candidates should not allow themselves to be pigeonholed, but I also question van Winkle's assumption that there is somehow something wrong with politicians who take actions to serve the part of their constituency that looks most like them. After all, that's what rich white politicians have been doing for years; why shouldn't women and black politicians behave in the same manner? To me, this smells like a classic case of being scared to death that a black politician might actually *gasp* do something that is good for his black constituents if he is elected.

On a somewhat related note, Hillary Clinton wants desperately to be black, but is a miserable failure. Ouch, it makes me cringe. Interestingly, as Chicago Trib columnist Eric Zorn points out, Obama can pull off the kind of Black English / Standard English code-switching that Hillary is trying here:
Sen. Barack Obama seems to calibrate his accent depending on whether he's speaking to a largely white audience--when he rates about a 2 on the Eminem Scale--or a largely black audience--when he hits about a 6.
Hey, if you've got communicative prowess, flaunt it, I say.

In other Obama news, he is being smart about the extremely offensive implications by FOX's Roger Ailes that Obama is a terrorist. Obama, in the kind of classy move his supporters have come to expect, has chosen to let the comment slide, even though I think many in his camp are taking up the offense for him. I'm not with him on every political issue, but he makes me respect him more every day.

In case you were wondering, I was completely wrong about Aaron. He was far from being a problem student -- and equally far from fulfilling all my expectations about his interests and concerns. He was one of three people in the class who would admit to owning more than one d20, he has a pretty decent dwarfish paladin on WoW, and he works 40 hours per week to put himself through school, where he makes straight A's. He also did a top-notch paper on King Arthur's weaponry in Le Morte d'Artur. He spoke often in class, was unfailingly kind and considerate towards me and his classmates, and from what I could tell, did everything he could to live out his Christian convictions in a quiet, non-hypocritical fashion.

And yet there are still times when I shy away from young black men for no other reason than their urban attire. Oh, to be free from unfounded assumptions. :-(

1 comment:

marshwiggle said...

hmm. I still believe that we present our bodies the way we want the world to see us, in other words, we project our view of ourselves for others to see. Stereotyping is sometimes just reading the outward projection. If I am proud of who I am, why do I mind the stereotype I fit?

As far as Ailes comment, I believe it was a slam on Bush's ignorance, not a joke directed at Obama. Taken out of context as it has been, it ironically seems as stereotypical (fox commentator being racist because fox news must be a group of republican racists) as your initial view of Aaron. :)