I’m writing this on the morning of Jan. 4th, 2008, the morning following Barack Obama’s exciting win in the first official tally of the 2008 Presidential election, the caucus in Iowa. A few nights ago, I sat in a room of about seven or eight people, and I was the only white person – something I experience quite frequently living in Harlem.
We got to talking about politics and Barack Obama’s candidacy which I always bring up with bombastic statements about my assuredness that he will be our next president. We went back and forth on a number of trains of thought, but the prevailing sentiment in the room, much to my surprise was that though they were all positive about Barack’s ability to be a good President, none thought he had a chance to win.
Even more nakedly revealing was the slow emergence that this was because of deeply held sentiments that plenty of white people were still racist enough that they simply would not vote for a black candidate. They can say all they want in public, “but behind the curtain” they won’t flip the Obama switch. This idea of behind the curtain of the voting booth people act out who they really are and they really are not ready for a black president came up multiple times. Wow, this was deeply instructing to me of the depth of black (and Hispanic) despair and pessimism about the progress of their people in this country.
I feel so deeply for these friends of mine, and the many others they represent, it is so horrible that we (my family, my friends, the overall system we've created) have beat them down so repeatedly that for many the inner hope glows very dim. For many despair is greater than hope.
But I have some perspective on this that is hopeful.
There are sins of commission – you hit someone, you did an act that was bad. But then there are sins of omission – you didn’t help someone you should have, it is the omission of an act that is bad.
Racism in America has changed from a sin of commission to a sin of omission.
In my Grandpa’s day down south, white people were repugnant in their dislike of black people. They wished they were still slaves and the fact that a bunch of people up North had forced them to end slavery and free the black people was an infected little festering burr under their skin. The combination of their bitterness over the civil war and their general disdain for black people caused them to feel physically repugnant to the actual presence of a black person. Short of a decent education and full of such potent feelings it’s easy to imagine how lynchings and the KKK thrived.
But that all ended a long time ago. In the last seventy years or so with the rise of Jazz and the Blues, which lead to rock and roll, the rise of black entertainers, the rise of the black middle class, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, slowly but surely white attitudes have changed toward black people. Anyone 50 years old or younger grew up in an environment where outward racism was socially unacceptable. Of course private simmerings still existed, but social pressure has a big effect over time. Finally, for the last twenty years young white people have grown up listening to rap and hip hop and quite frankly and hopefully, many of them are black wannabes.
Here is the place we have come to; there is still a big divide between blacks and whites, but it is for much different reasons than in the past. Racism today is not the committing of a hatred against another, it is the omission of exerting the energy to get to know the other – which we should be doing. White people are not repulsed by black people, they just don’t know them. There’s a big difference and it’s a very hopeful situation where the potential is amazing with a little push.
And so, of course black people still feel it in all the ways that really hurt, in ways white people just don't notice. Because of the divide, it's easier to hire a white person you're comfortable with. It's not that you don't like black people, it's just you're more comfortable with white people. People want to be comfortable, and they are drawn to others that are like them. What white people need to learn is that in the omission of forcing themselves to cross the divide and be more comfortable around black people, they are causing black people to actually suffer the loss of what could have been. Because white people have power - the power to hire, the power to open doors, the power of relationships to networks of influence, when they prefer the white person they are comfortable with, they directly affect the black person who could have received that benefit but didn't. This happens enough times and it adds up to racism - but not racism by commission, racism by omission. Even though the net effect is the same - the Black person suffers, the importance is that this change places us much further down the highway, closer to the finish than we may have thought.
Black and white culture is still very different and our history of separation is still very recent and we just need a little push to come together.
If you invited me over to your family’s big Sunday meal where twenty family members all got together – it would be a very different experience if it was a white family or a black family. The food, the talking and laughing would all be different. Cultural differences are just enough where it would take moving out of our comfort zone to be comfortable together. So there is an act of walking across the divide that is still necessary to the healing of our country. We must not continue the sin of omission of not walking across the divide. Others worked and bled and died to get us here – so close, we just need to make the final walk over and embrace one another.
So back to Barack.
I was an early Barack Obama enthusiast. I followed his Senate race in Illinois where it was clear that all kinds of white people loved him. It’s a lot harder to give money than it is to pull a vote lever – and so when he started raking in donations, I knew that was a sign that people were serious about their enthusiasm for him and that would equal votes, ie., you’re not going to give money, and then when you get behind the curtain suddenly get racist.
And so last night was very gratifying. Barack Obama won in every category in a state that is 98% white. He got the young people, the old people, the men – and against a famous woman candidate, he got the women. The guy is just charismatically amazing and makes people feel like he could lead our country in so many hopeful ways. White people simply will not have a problem voting for a black candidate if they are attracted to the person and feel they could do a great job. That would not have been true in the past, but things have changed.
I’m so grateful I got to experience that conversation the other night in Harlem and see so viscerally the lack of hope in my friends – but I hope now that they and millions like them will reach out to the hope that it is actually possible that we will put a black man in the White House.
Imagine how that could help us walk the last mile together, to be that last needed push for real unity between two peoples that have shared a long American journey together.