Race -- specifically the race of Senator Barack Obama -- has been a subtext of this Presidential election cycle from the beginning. At first, we were unsure if Obama was "black enough" due to his mixed race family, having a white mother from Kansas and a non-African American father from Kenya. Then we heard "Barack the Magic Negro" and allegations of Michelle Obama calling someone "Whitey." We heard that Obama's candidacy is a conscious act of affirmative action by millions of disconnected voters all over the country. We heard that Obama's pastor is a racist and that reverse racism is the real issue in this campaign.
All this underscores a true insecurity in this country about race and the relations between white and black communities. If race were no issue, a black man would run for president, submit his policy positions and promises, and be elected or rejected. Instead all news, all statements, are now pouring through the filter of race before entering the mainstream of democracy.
But the saddest parts of this situation are the instances of blatant racism that have emerged in our own communities that have gone unchallenged. Posters we have seen with our own eyes, racial slurs spoken about Obama we have heard with our own ears, false accusations have been allowed to stand unchallenged by those that know the truth.
Last summer, I remember talking with a professor of mine who said that Obama would never get elected because America was not ready for a black leader. He said the campaign of a black man would bring out the worst in the racist white supremacists and nationalists in this country. The reality of a black candidate would bring race to the fore and force us to confront it. I said I was ready for that. I said I want to see clearly who stands in that camp so we know who to approach with the light of truth.
My first personal contact with this blatant racism came yesterday upon hearing about a particular clothing designer on Manhattan's Lower East Side who sells t-shirts that read, "Obama is my Slave." The designer, Doron Braunshtein aka Apollo Braun, has also made shirts that read "Obama= Hitler" and "Who Killed Obama?" If this is an attempt to shock and to gain publicity, it has served the designer's goal through numerous blog posts and news articles, many written in a tone of outrage. The "Obama is My Slave" t-shirt had gained publicity after it was reported that a woman wearing the t-shirt had been assaulted by a group of black teenage girls at Union Square.
After reading the news and blog accounts, I went down to this man's shop to confirm the story. I did not go as a journalist. I went as a concerned citizen that wanted some answers. I walked through the main entrance where an "Obama is my Slave" t-shirt was proudly displayed and asked him if the story was true. Did a woman really get assaulted at Union Square for wearing his "Obama is My Slave" t-shirt? Yes, unfortunately it was true, he said. The two women customers in the shop cooed with sympathy for the poor t-shirt designer. I asked him if he understood why someone would react that way. He says it doesn't matter because "this is America." I ask him if there is no responsibility attached to the freedom of speech and he gives me the same spiel. I then tell him I think his shirt is disgusting and he should be ashamed of himself. That was my freedom of speech on display. The women looked shocked.
That's when he boots me out of his store. He points to the camera and says I need to watch myself, and that I should never show my face again in his store. I just say I'm not here to do anything but register my protest, and tell him that there are plenty of other people that are going to do exactly the same.
I didn't fight with him and, in fact, the conversation was rather civilized. But the fact is clear that his stated dedication to the first amendment does not include the inside of his shop.
The designer has been accused of the high crime of irony in designing this particular t-shirt and selling it for $69. Ahh, the irony of a young, white child of privilege stating his independence from the racism of the past by wearing a shirt that boldly puts that aspirational black man in his place ;). Oh how funny the wearer's progressive friends will find a shirt that is so backwards.
The true irony of the situation is that as I left his shop I saw a poster promoting hip-hop artist Nas's new album. The cover art shows Nas with back turned, showing the scars of a slave master's whip. Not twenty feet away from this cowardly shop is a clear sign to all those would-be purchasers of racist garb: We have not forgotten.
Racial issues are not "over." They are not resolved. Those "scars" still remain in the minds of every black person that's ever been discriminated against, feared unjustly, or torn down to dirt with racial slurs. To act as if they don't exist is to not know the pain of injustice.
But we have to go further. To allow blatant racism to continue unquestioned, under the guise of free speech, is unacceptable. To act with complacency is to act with complicity. Never let your freedom to tell racists that they are hurting our country go to waste. Stand up to these displays of gall and say no, not in my community. Race is still an issue and no level of ignorance and inaction on the part of the unaffected will improve the lives of the victims of hate.
You can personally express your desire to see these t-shirts removed from Braun's store at 193 Orchard Street, New York, NY 10002. You may also call him at 212-726-8075. His hours of operation are 12PM to 10PM, seven days a week. He'll most likely be there in person selling his wares. Zachary Pickens is the Youth and Interactive Media Editor at MediaChannel.org. You can contact him at email@example.com