It’s African-American history month and the election of our first black president is something I’m still trying to digest. Some friends have asked me, “Now, with Obama’s election, can we finally put that whole racism thing to bed?” But the things I heard during Obama’s journey to the White House – right here in Hamilton County, tells me it’s a bit early to declare that racism is dead.
I had a creeping sense of it during the campaign last year.
Perhaps every presidential candidate has been a victim of a smear. The rap on Gore said he was a liar. The assaults on Bush and Palin painted them as hollow and stupid. The smears about John Kerry claimed he was a flip-flopper and a false hero. A smear against McCain in the 2000 primaries claimed his time as a prisoner of war rendered him mentally unstable. And Hillary Clinton was cast as a manipulative shrew. With each of those a grain of truth or popular perception was blown out of reasonable proportion. And Obama got some of that, in the exaggerated claims that he had no experience and that he “palled around with terrorists.”
But there was a whole vein of outright smears directed at Obama that struck me as an invitation to racism. They repeatedly suggested, “He’s not one of us.”
There was the mass email a year ago claiming Obama was a closet Muslim that were sent and resent until millions of Americans had gotten it. A colleague who believed it brought it to my attention.
Media outlets investigated the charges and found them utterly false.
In June came the first of many mass emails questioning Obama’s patriotism. One claimed he wouldn’t say the Pledge of Allegiance, then another claimed he wouldn’t wear an American flag lapel pin. I heard a co-worker pronounce it true.
Yet, these accusations were easily proven false.
Other emails claimed Obama attended a radical Muslim “madrassa” school in Indonesia as a child. The Associated Press and CNN visited the school, interviewed Obama’s classmates, and found zero evidence to support the notion it taught anything remotely radical. Yet another mass email claimed that Obama was sworn into the Senate with his hand on the Koran. Also false. That was Minnesota congressman Keith Ellison. Obama used a Bible.
These Obama smears focused on a single relentless theme; “He’s foreign, he’s scary, he’s not one of us.” Begging the question, Who is,“us?”
Was the “us,” white Christians? Was all this idiocy a substitute for the fact that on the surface of American culture today it’s not acceptable to call someone the “N-word?” So, cast him as an “other” and let people’s darker fears about dark-skinned people lead them where the “N-word” might have taken them anyway?
Once Obama won the election, a whole new set of emails began circulating. I got the one promising to show the band practicing for the inaugural. The accompanying photo showed a primitive African tribe in loin clothes dancing in a circle, beating drums.
After the public good will of the inauguration, many folks shared with me the private ill-will they overheard at work that day.
One friend told me that as they watched the inaugural on TV in their office, a coworker looked at the ocean of disproportionately black faces before the Capital in D. C. and said, “I bet most of ‘em are on welfare.”
Another friend told me that as she watched the inaugural at work, filled with a sense of pride that a black man had been elected president, her boss stood behind her offering mock-Ebonics as an overdub to Obama’s speech.
Another friend heard a co-worker refer to Obama, using the “N-word.”
I have contradictory feelings about the racial implications of Obama’s election. One part of me marvels, “Look how far we’ve come,” while another part of me wonders, “Will all this racial nonsense ever end?”
So when people say, “Okay, can we stop worrying about racism now that Obama’s been elected,” I feel a little like a child who’s been begging for something and an adult finally, begrudgingly shoves it in my hands and grunts, “Now, will you shut up?”
Well, there’s nothing childish about wanting an end to racism. But there is something a little childish about thinking that electing a black president would end it.
America has obviously come a long way, but what could be heard right here in Hamilton County in the months leading up to the election, and then on election day in the offices and hallways of work places, make it clear we’ve still got a way to go.