Monday, July 27, 2009

GADFLY: The Question is Race

Posted By on Mon, Jul 27, 2009 at 12:16 AM

e6e7/1248672154-gadfly.jpgWell, guess what? Racism (or at least accusations of it) is back in the news, both locally and nationally. Our mayor trotted out that old saw, for the Nth time, because he was pissed off at City Council for actually taking him at his word about “retiring” on July 30th, and passing a resolution declaring the office vacant as of July 31st. The gall of them! Obviously, there's no other explanation for that than racism. Oh, and he embellished the accusation, this time, by adding the charge that the Council's action was “perverted.” Who knew that part of the resolution declaring a vacancy in the office apparently was language praising child pornography?

On the national scene, there have been two prominent incidents: the first was the exclusion of a group of black children from an apparently “whites only” swim club in suburban Philadelphia, and the second was when our President entered the fray over the arrest of prominent African American scholar Henry Louis Gates by suggesting this was another example of racial profiling. Imagine—-an African American male suggesting that law enforcement officials occasionally target people of color for “special” treatment. How dare he! It couldn't possibly be because there's hardly a black person who's lived long enough who hasn't been harassed for the “crime” of being black, could it? But the corporate media, looking for a controversy about this president, when the only other thing on their radar screens was the “birther” goofiness, jumped on Obama's remarks as if he were channeling Jeremiah Wright.

I've been privileged to become friends with a number of African Americans in the last few years as a result of my membership in a predominantly (well, except for me, exclusively) black social organization made up of doctors, lawyers and other professionals. It's been an enlightening experience to have the shoe be on the other foot, as my black friends have (playfully, I think) referred to me as the “white boy,” or the “slave master,” among other things. Nonetheless, I've come to the realization from being around these guys that it is virtually impossible to be a black person in this country, regardless of status or stature, and not have experiences where the color of your skin has been criminalized by law enforcement authorities. “Driving while black,” has become almost a cliché, but, as with most clichés, it has a reality-based origin.

It's a sad fact that our Mayor's ubiquitous hurling of the racist accusation has had the effect of inuring us to instances where the charge may actually be meritorious, like the incident in Philadelphia, not unlike the way the villagers in the Aesop fable stopped believing the boy who kept crying “wolf.”

I am the last person to scoff at charges of bigotry or intolerance, being the child of Holocaust survivors, and having had personal experience with anti-Semitism. But, I also have enough life experience to know that just because you are a member of a group that has been historically discriminated against doesn't mean that everything bad that happens to you is the result of discrimination.

I also know that just because a black person cries “racism” every time something bad happens to them doesn't mean it isn't the result of discrimination. The saying is, just because you're paranoid, doesn't mean everyone isn't out to get you. Eventually, even the boy who cried wolf was right, even if, by that point, he couldn't get anyone to believe him.

There are lessons to be learned in these episodes. For Obama, it's that discussing issues of race may not always be accepted with open arms, even coming from him. Oh sure, everyone admired his confrontation of race in that memorable campaign speech in Philadelphia. But that was as much because it put distance between himself and someone many white folks saw as a virulent black racist as because it spoke to broader issues of race.

We “palefaces” liked that speech because it made us feel Obama had common cause with us in decrying the kind of racism we're not used to, the kind that threatens us. But identifying with a prominent black scholar because he may have been the victim of the kind of racism we would prefer to believe is mostly anecdotal? Unh-unh; that was a bridge too far. But the fact is, Obama's foray into racial profiling may end up having the salutary effect of making us (black and white) realize that we may not have made as much progress towards becoming “post-racial” as the pundits would have us believe.

The lessons in the Herenton episode are harder to glean, if only because his accusations of discrimination have become so indiscriminate. After all, our mayor has enjoyed a record-breaking tenure in his office in no small part because whites, as well as blacks, have repeatedly re-elected him, and because he has been the beneficiary of the white power structure's largesse.

Nonetheless, the lesson in Herenton's incessant invocation of the “race card,” especially in juxtaposition with the incident at the Philadelphia swim club, may be that racism is still alive and well in this country, even if the carriers of that message may see that wolf at the door all too often.

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