Thursday, November 06, 2008

Not So Black and White

When Branch Rickey gave Jackie Robinson the chance to play on the Brooklyn Dodgers, it was historic. It was an important point in the narrative of race that is an essential thread for anyone who wants to understand our national story. But, be clear, it was not evidence that we were not a racist society. Indeed, it provided a context to demonstrate exactly how racist we, in fact, were.

There has been a tidal wave of American self-congratulations in the last day on how wonderful we are to have elected an African-American, how we are the only country in the world in which this sort of thing could happen, and how we stand apart from all other nations morally because it. I am in no way saying it is not a fantastic result. "Content of his character" is sadly becoming a cliche, but Obama's brains, rock-steady temperament, and care for people combine to truly make him what I believe will be a once in a lifetime leader at a time when we really, really, really need one. Like Jackie Robinson, no doubt it took someone so disciplined and talented to make it to the office. A black George W. Bush could never have made it.

But this election is not black and white. It was not a demonstration of having gone quite so far in terms of our embrace of difference and an end to bigotry. Yes, it was a tremendous step forward, but just as with the Jackie Robinson case, that step afforded the opportunity to avoid the Disneyesque approach we seem to be caught up in and to take an honest appraisal of what just happened in this election.

We saw both Democratic and Republicans race-baiting. The Clintons and their surrogates like Geraldine Ferrarro and many on the right did not make overtly racist attacks, but did clearly use dog-whistle means of invoking race to try to gain a political advantage. They used racists as tools, as convenient idiots. Should we be proud of the facts that they kept this to a significantly lower degree than they could have and that it did not ultimately work? Sure. But let's not kid ourselves, and no one with an e-mail address and conservative family members surely can.

But the real intolerance and bigotry came out in other ways. It took Colin Powell to say, and so what if we was a Muslim. Anti-Islamic bigotry was rampant. "He's an Arab." "No, ma'am. He's a decent family man. A citizen that I just happen to have disagreements with on fundamental issues and that's what this campaign's all about. He's not." A decent family man, as opposed to an Arab...

Then there was the Liddy Dole ad that accused Senator-elect Kay Hagen of being, gasp, an atheist. No, no, no, people rushed to her aid, she's a Sunday school teacher and an elder in her Presbyterian church. Dole got slammed for the ad and it may have been one of the things that ultimately cost her her seat. but was it because it was false or was it because we still see "atheist" as a hit below the belt. Godless clearly means immoral, right?

But perhaps the most disgusting result of the night were the ballot initiatives in California, Arizona, and Florida that wrote into law provisions stripping rights from our fellow citizens who happen to be gay and lesbian. Jim Crow is back, or at least Jim Crow's gay child. The law has been changed to enforce bigotry and hatred. This is horrific, but that it happened while we are all so busy back-slapping ourselves about how open-minded we are puts it clearly in the "irony can be so ironic" file.