Like many African Americans, I've been waiting all my life to see this country have a serious conversation about race. I even helped start a year long national race dialogue on an island out in the Atlantic Ocean last year, so that actually had me believing it might be possible here.
But now that the Obama candidacy has the US talking race, I'm confounded and profoundly depressed. At best, the conversation is shallow and mired in looping sound bites and stereotypes, sadly revealing how little most white Americans know about their own history, the black experience, their neighbors, or themselves.
I've been "doing race" since long before I left my all-black segregated life in the US apartheid South of 1960s Charlotte, NC; long before I ended up in the Land of the White People -- i.e., the one beyond where I was born and bred. So where race-talk is concerned, I feel like a post-doc surrounded by a nation of pre-speech toddlers. And chief among these race babblers are the paid political analysts who claim they know more about this mess than the rest of us.
Following Obama's poor showing in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, the TV explodes with heads talking about his "problem with Blue collar whites," ignoring the fact that he did fabulously well with the same demographic in Wisconsin, Iowa, and many other states. They heard the governor of Pennsylvania describe his state as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in the middle, but they failed to understand or acknowledge what he meant.
Obama only has problems in the same places where any Black man in a BMW would expect to have problems -- the same places that fought longest and hardest to keep the country segregated -- mainly, the Deep South and Appalachia. Oh, yeah, and add to that every other place wealthy powerbrokers and their functionaries manipulate resources to keep the war going between blacks and whites with little to nothing.
Obama got the same percentage of the white votes in WVA as he got in Mississippi. The fact that John Stewart on the Comedy Central Network is the only person on TV I've seen make such a connection should be shocking. Instead, it's par for this course.
The flaw is not with Obama the candidate, but with the people -- specifically, white people.
No intelligent Democrat thinks Obama believes the Government started AIDS, but more than half the voters in WVA think he shares Rev Wright's beliefs. Does this willingness to believe the Republican-Hillary line mean they are racist? Certainly some of them are. Their state may have fought for the North in the civil war, but historically, white West Virginians hated the rich slave-owners and their slaves equally. That's why virtually no blacks live there. But even those who are not racists are more likely to believe the crap that gets thrown at them and I suspect they are also more likely to listen to right wing talk radio, which is a 24/7 Obama hate fest.
Just as Rush gets them to vote against their own interests and support Bush, he and his clones never let up on the Rev Wright story, never pass a half hour without questioning Obama's patriotism.
So why have I yet to hear a single one of these paid political geniuses make any of these points?
It's clear to me that white commentators, like most Americans, black and white, really just want racism to go away, so they ignore it even when it's all up in their faces. If you are white, you have that option. If you are Black, you have to deal with the reality, which is that white people, like all people, are complex. They can like you, work with you, play with you and then, like Barack's grandma, say or do some stupid crap that makes you wonder how you can speak civilly to instead of straight out pimp-slapping them.
Still, it is infuriating to see all the cable networks fall in line and play race poker using Hillary and McCain's stacked card deck. Every story about Obama's "problem" with white voters reinforces the false assertion that he has a problem with all blue collar whites, rather than just the Southern and Southern-thinking ones. Whether they do this from ignorance or with malice makes no difference. When they say it the same way Rush Limbaugh says it, they have even more impact than he does, because, hey, it's The Mainstream Media and it's supposed to be Liberal.
This lack of sophistication or studied ignorance makes the media into pawns, just like the poor white men Bob Dylan sang about in 1963 in his aptly titled "Only a Pawn in Their Game": And the Negro's name is used, it is plain, for the politician's gain as he rises to fame. And the poor white remains on the caboose of the train.
Hello, West Virginia, look around you. Dylan wrote about you 45 years ago. So, how's that caboose thing working for you?
You are one of the whitest states and one of the poorest. Yet, twice you voted for an idiot who pins a flag on his lapel while he sends your blindly patriotic boys off to die for no good reason, and ships your jobs off to dictatorships like China and Burma. Maybe you can be forgiven because you are less educated and more isolated from America's racial reality. But CNN, MSNBC and the rest should know better. If they act no better than Fox, you think maybe, just maybe, they share the same agenda?
Hello, TV pundits, look around you. When are you going to start talking about the white folks' problem with Obama -- which is also your problem with accurately analyzing his candidacy: r-a-c-i-s-m?
That's a hard fact to own, right? Absolutely. I've seen some of the most fervently radical, avowedly antiracists crumple like tinfoil when they have to stare down their own deeply embedded white supremacist reality. Really rough stuff.
But if not now, when? If not now, why?
Bernestine Singley is an activist lawyer, author, and conversationalist whose award-winning, critically-acclaimed 2002 book, When Race Becomes Real: Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories, will be republished this fall by Southern Illinois University Press.