Playing the race card is a dispiriting way of making a political or social point. It brings to mind such opportunists as Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, men who should know better but are ready to cry racism if it brings attention to their causes or, at the very least, puts them in front of television cameras. Both of these men, blessed with admirable skills, sullied their own reputations as they built careers on dubious ventures. Sharpton with the Tawana Brawley story, for example. Jackson with the bloody shirt he wore in Memphis on the day (and in Chicago the day after) Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. *
Yet, there are times when the matter of race forces itself on issues. The matter of race obscures the matter at hand. Now race, or racism, has to be taken into account. One doesn’t have to be in President Obama’s corner on every issue to realize that some opposition he faces is fueled by an underlying disdain toward his blackness. While our country is ready for a black president, some of our people are not ready to live in the country as it is today.
A local radio personality has often commented on how people will not recognize this country in the coming decades as the country they’ve come to know thus far. He has a point, perhaps not the one he means to convey. Those of us born during the baby boom years realize the country is different now than it was when we first went to public swimming pools, got our first cars and rented our first apartments. Many of the changes have been positive. Certainly, as the radio guy suggests, the country will look different in say, 2025. But it looks different now than it did in 1969, the year of the sanctified Woodstock festival. One can see that in Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York City. One can see that in Clarkston, Georgia. Actually the country appears more vibrant and festive to many of us. So there’s a good chance we’ll be fine with the way America looks and conducts itself in 2025.
Actually, most Americans conduct themselves in a civil and friendly manner each day. Millions of Americans count as dear friends people of different races and ethnic origins — people from countries they can’t point to on the map right away. Think of someone at a workplace who has died; co-workers of many races grieve deeply for their departed friend. That doesn’t mean it’s all sweetness and light out there, but out there does not resemble the vile land some say our nation is becoming due to the 44th president and his facilitators.
It’s OK to question aspects of the health care plan Obama has rolled out. It’s reasonable to worry about the deficits that could accumulate with his spending plans. It’s understandable that someone, whether in a good or bad neighborhood, would justify owning a gun to protect his or her family. These are among the many issues, not necessarily racial issues, that reasonable people can discuss but not agree on.
What isn’t reasonable is for people to openly carry guns close to areas where the president is speaking. Reading about that in the last week makes one wonder what planet this is anyway. It’s like the Kansas house with Dorothy and Toto landing in some distant place, but this time the Munchkins await fully armed. For years we’ve read about the Secret Service checking on radicals in towns where presidents make appearances. Perhaps the editor of an underground paper inveighing against the order would be observed during the president’s visit. But now there are guys walking the streets with rifles and pistols and railing against the president close to where he’s speaking How did things get so off track?
A recent example of this exhibition of manhood took place in Phoenix, Arizona, with at least a dozen people showing off their guns. The state of Arizona has an open carry law for those who legally own their weapons. Open and carry sounds more like a law allowing you to buy your beer at a bar and walk outside with it. But no, it’s a law that makes it perfectly legal to carry-a-gun-close-to-where-the-president-you-hate-so-much-is-appearing. Is this what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the second amendment to our Constitution?
Many people were aghast three years ago when a British “mockumentary” film, “Death of A President ” was shown in several theatres across the U.S.A. It was considered shameful and treasonous to even consider seeing a film that depicted an imagined murder of President George W. Bush. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby worried the film would appeal to the other John Hinckleys in the country who might not kill a president to impress a movie star, but to become movie stars themselves. Jacoby at least made an interesting point. That couldn’t be said for everybody. Even though she had not seen the film, Senator Hillary Clinton, wife to a former president, called the film “disgusting” and “outrageous.” Others reflected censorious hysteria.Surely there was something in the Patriot Act that would allow the government to raid the theatres and seize the copies. The troopers might check to see if the popcorn butter was laced with acid. They would need to take the names of all those in attendance as well.
At the time “Death of A President” was released, millions of Americans had reason to feel betrayed by President Bush. Some five years earlier, after the 9/11 attacks, Bush had the backing of an overwhelming majority of the American people. Liberals and Democrats set aside their disagreements with the Republican president as he was expected to shield the homeland and make sure those who attacked our country heard from us loudly and clearly. But the support waned over the next couple of years as Bush led the US into a war of choice against a country that did not attack us. Lives and treasure were lost as was the nationwide bipartisan support Bush enjoyed. There was great reason for the enmity toward the president but there were no Travis Bickle wanna-be’s displaying their heat at his public appearances.
So now we have our new president in office for less than nine months and the anger toward him mounts. Because of the financial fall-out of last year, it’s logical that many people, not just hard core conservatives, would be dubious of Obama’s plan to change so much so quickly. The talk show hosts pick up on that and prey upon the people’s fears. They also manage, intentionally or not, to spur on those who have problems with the color of Obama’s skin. Naturally, they think he’s disqualified. That underlying racism is not felt by the majority of white Americans, but there are enough who do feel it and are vicious and petty about it.
As the Reaganites considered the Carters to be the Clampetts, some partisan observers consider the Obamas to be the Sanfords. Fred, Lamont and the rest, that is, not the governor and his sad family in South Carolina. President Obama and his family are quite often regarded as part of a freak show that equally attracts and repels righteous people. On aol.com this week there was a home page headline about Michelle Obama wearing “short shorts” while on vacation. Given that our First Lady is really cute, it was necessary to check out the story. The shorts were not that short after all. C’mon, Michelle Obama has long legs. Her shorts may always seem very short to some disapproving types, you know, people like the wives in W.C. Fields films. If they can’t get Obama on the birthplace issue, they present Michelle Obama as Brittany Spears.
It is sad, but not difficult, to acknowledge that such underlying racism exists in this country. Most of us would love to move beyond the dismal plight we have to explain away. Instead,we’re forced to deal with bigoted Americans who are, by our Constitution, guaranteed the right to declare their opinions, even in distasteful terms. The ugly stirrings inside a bigot’s mind can make the feelings toward a president he disapproves of seem quite sinister. The bigotry is manifested when there’s resentment of a black man whose achievements in academics, law and politics are top-drawer. The bigot has to believe that some affirmative action program is responsible for Obama’s rise. Or it’s the black vote, even though many of the states that voted Republican last November have a high percentage of black voters. So there’s no rationale? Exactly. But the bigots will keep talking and polluting the public discourse. The bigots’ pollution will fester in the minds of usually rational citizens. That includes many Americans, who should know better, shrugging off people carrying guns as a message to the president speaking a few blocks down the street. Hopefully, the many good Americans, Barack Obama among them, will help us get through this.
*For a fascinating account of Jesse Jackson and his bloody shirt, read “Jesse, The Life and Pilgrimage of Jesse Jackson,” by the late Marshall Frady.