Race Matters: Understanding Racism in America

One of the leading headlines of the day was Senator Barack Obama’s speech dealing with race, racism and controversial comments made by his former minister, Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Much has already been written about Obama’s speech, and what it may or may not mean to his campaign. The New York Times and the Associated Press both ran interesting analyses of the speech, and I have included it in its entirety below, which I strongly suggest people watch (as opposed to the abbreviated snippets on the news). But this is only partially about what Barack Obama said today in his eloquent speech. It is—as are most things you read about on this site—also about me.

During the Obama speech, he spoke of his maternal grandmother, a white woman who loved him and helped raise him, who none-the-less confessed to being afraid of black men on the street, and said racially disparaging things over the years that made him “cringe.” This was part of how the senator addressed remarks made by his minister, explaining in essence that no one is perfect, and that even people who we love and who love us can say and do things that we find troubling, or that we outright disagree with.

Much like Obama, my maternal grandmother was white. She did not help to raise me, nor was she all that loving. When my mother first came home from college, carrying a new-born, racially ambiguous baby that would grow up to be me, my grandmother tried to tell people I was part Italian. Some people may have believed it at first, until my afro began to grow out in a way that wouldn’t even pass as part Sicilian. Eventually my grandmother had to admit to everyone that I was a shvartza. This lead to my mother’s parents disowning her, and a lack of communication for many years. It wasn’t until my paternal grandmother stepped in and encouraged my mother to try and work things out that things changed. But they did not change that much.

On my mother’s side of the family, I am the second-born grandchild—nine months younger than my cousin Jessica, and about three to five years older than the next two in line, my cousins Paul and Anna. All told, there are eleven of us grandchildren on that side of the family, but for years there was only one kid whose picture was never hanging on the walls. Growing up as a kid, I always wondered why there were pictures of Jessica, and then Paul, and then Anna, and then Lonnie, Corey and Noah, but there was never a picture of me. It wasn’t until my uncle Ned laid down the law, around the time I was 12 that a picture of me finally went on the wall—an obvious fly in the buttermilk.

I don’t tell that story to often, the damage has been done, and I have healed as best I can. But what I have come to realize is that within the walls of my grandparent’s home in Schenectady, New York, there was something going on that was reflective of this country. Racism in it’s most ugly form—the sort of sick behavior and mindset that makes for the best headlines—is a very small part of the race problems in this country. The most common racism is that which remains less obvious than a burning cross or a black body hanging from a poplar tree. And it is far more subtle, and sometimes so deeply rooted within the subconscious that we often miss it. It is the sort of thing that manifests itself when a white person locks their car door when they see a black male standing on the street corner, just as it manifested itself in the house of my grandparents.

My grandmother and grandfather, Edith and Jack Feldman, were not the nicest people in the world—not just to me, but to a lot of people. My grandmother tried in her own way to be good to me. She always remembered my birthday (and even sent the exact same card for over ten years), and she always told me she loved me. When I came to visit she gave me food, and let me sleep in the guest room, and never once told me that I was not welcome in her home. And yet there were never any pictures of me on the wall. Amidst the photos of my smiling cousins—all with blonde hair and blue eyes (except for Paul)—there was never a single picture of me with my nappy hair, brown eyes, and features a bit too broad to be that of a white kid.

The story of modern race relations in post-Civil Rights America can be summed up—at least in part and in an overly simplified way—by me and my family. My mother’s family represents white America, and while some of them cared for me, most were never fully comfortable with me. Most white Americans—liberal and conservative—know black people, either through work or some sort of social connection. And most white people are accepting of black people—up to a point. To put it in a very broad, generalized way, most of white America is fine with working next to a black person, or even having one or two stop by for a visit—maybe even a meal and some cocktails—but allowing them to move in, to welcome them into the family, well, that’s something else altogether.

Within my own family it took 12 years for my Uncle Ned to finally say something—to put his foot down and say that if I could not be accepted as part of the family, then the family itself could not be whole. And that’s where America is right now, and has been for many, many years. Black people live here and die here. We raise our families the best we can given the obstacles that have left us culturally disadvantaged, and we call ourselves Americans. But our inclusion and acceptance into the family of America as a nation has been and continues to be very limited. As someone once said to me, “We are not the favorite children here—never have been, and never will be.”

While I agree with that statement, I do think things can change for the better. It will never be perfect, at least not within our life time. But we are at a moment in history where we stand poised to make a large step forward. I am not so naïve as to think that electing Barack Obama President of the United States will change everything, and that everyone in this country will join hands and start singing “Ebony and Ivory,” but I do know that things can get better than they are right now. That does not mean that they will get better, or that it will be easy if we chose as a nation to undertake this Herculean task. But we can all see—provided we open our eyes for a moment—that what we have right now, and where we are right now, simply does not work.

If the hope of every parent is that their children have it better than they did, then the collective goal of this nation should be that the next generation has it better than the previous one. That does not just mean bringing the war in Iraq to an end, stabilizing the economy, or dealing with alternative forms of fuel. It means more than anything that we must become a family. A very wise men once said that we must live together as brothers, or we will perish as fools. It is time for this nation to look itself in the mirror and ask ourselves if we are ready to work toward brother/sisterhood, or will we continue to wallow in the putrid pool of our own foolishness.

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One Response to “Race Matters: Understanding Racism in America”

  1. D-nice Says:

    Shit man, it continues to amazed me how people ‘s childhood effect their later adult lives. My heart goes out to you…my step sister was bi-racial. Reading your post reminded me of some of the things that she went through as a child from Blacks (I don’t have to tell you that it goes both ways). Even sarcastic comments or jokes hurt kids. Me and her don’t keep in touch like we used to but I could only imagine…
    I am supporting Obama just for the fact I don’t think Bill/Hillary has ever really done anything for Blacks (just enough to stay pacified). I just never bought into the notion that the Republicans were all racist,homophobic or any other -ism that you want to apply and the Dems were open and accepting but that’s another story….

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