Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Nasty Politics of Racial Resentment


Where to begin? I usually do not write these articles in the first person, but I must make an exception under such extenuating circumstances.

This past week, we witnessed a truly surreal, bizarro spectacle at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul. Suddenly, the laws of physics were reversed – up became down, left became right, east became west, the earth became flat, and the sun revolved around that flat earth. This virtually all-white gathering, in tone and tenor, put me in mind of nothing so much as a White Citizens Council rally. The mean-spirited viciousness of so many old, ugly, white people was most obvious. You could feel the hate emanating from this orgy of ill-will and spite. We were treated to an absurd discourse of inversion, reversal and contradiction. Suddenly, we were told that it is a good thing to have an unwed, pregnant teenager being forced into a shotgun wedding with a hapless, unemployed high school dropout. This, we were told, is the kind of thing that any American family might face, that it shows those involved in this drama as real people, normal. Well, I suppose it is normal – in a low-rent trailer park, or when you’re performing political back-flips. These same sanctimonious hypocrites, who as a matter of course savage black and hispanic teenagers in similar circumstances, did a 180-degree turn on this one, and using those two poor kids as political stage props was beyond obscene. What do you think they would be saying if Barack and Michelle Obama had a pregnant teenaged daughter on their hands? Don’t even get me started. We know. Yet on a deeper level, the character of the unfortunate daughter of Governor Sarah Palin is not and has never been the issue. I feel nothing but sympathy for this child. But it is the character of a mother who would knowingly expose her child to such withering public scrutiny and humiliation – all in the furtherance of her own unbridled and outsized ambitions – that is in serious question. When Senator Obama declared that the media and everyone else should leave the governor’s pregnant daughter alone, it was an expression of genuine decency. What was Sarah Palin’s response to this? A diatribe of puerile and sophomoric name-calling, character assassination, mockery and ridicule that would be more fitting at a junior high school class election. All she proved was that she could read a speech - written by someone else, of course - from a teleprompter. And that’s all. As more and more is learned about her, a fuller picture is emerging. What the public is now beginning to see is a self-righteous, power-abusing, book-burning, bible-beating, gay-hating, global warming-denying, insensitive, intolerant, right-wing gun nut whose views are so far from the mainstream as to be laughable. In other words, a singularly loathsome and repulsive person, whose selection calls John McCain’s judgment into serious question.

Michelle Obama has been pilloried for a careless offhand comment regarding her pride in America. Her patriotism and love of country have been incessantly questioned. Yet Todd Palin, husband of Governor Sarah Palin, was for at least eight years (1994-2002) a card-carrying member of the Alaskan Independence Party, an all-white fringe political group that advocates secession from the United States – in other words, it fosters sedition and possibly treason. Why hasn’t this connection been as fully explored as Mrs. Obama’s one – one - spontaneous utterance? Why isn’t Todd Palin on some government watch list? We know why. Why hasn’t the media highlighted this connection to the extent it has with respect to the Rev. Jeremiah Wright? We know why.

We also know perfectly well what awaits Senator Barack Obama over the next sixty days: a shrill and full-throated exploitation of the politics of resentment. We’ve seen this several times before, beginning with Richard Nixon, and you know how it goes: “Those Democrat elites, those snobs with their fancy educations, look down their noses at us regular people. Let’s stick it to ‘em and really show ‘em!” Never mind that John McCain has been in the Senate for twenty-six years and owns nine houses. Never mind that Mitt Romney has a half-billion dollars and five houses. The charter members of The League of the Invincibly Stupid do not want to be confused by such inconvenient facts. No, they know what they want to believe and act upon: their small-minded bigotry. Suddenly, a man who graduated 894 out of his Naval Academy class of 899, and a woman who bounced through six colleges in as many years, become somehow superior to a man with two Ivy League degrees who was President of the Harvard Law Review. Ask any judge or lawyer in the world just what that means. This same man taught Constitutional law for twelve years at the prestigious University of Chicago School of Law, yet this fact is conveniently ignored. To The League of the Invincibly Stupid, all of these stellar accomplishments only serve to prove one thing: “He thinks he’s better than us.”

Now add the explosive racial factor, and it becomes “That nigger thinks he’s better than us!” This is the equivalent of throwing gasoline onto an already raging fire; all reason, rationality, decency and proportion go right out the window. The reason Senator Obama cannot reach the disaffected blue collar voters is just this: racial resentment. The top-drawer educational credentials of both Barack and Michelle Obama fuel this resentment, as Joe and Jane Sixpack, whose own children have rarely, if ever, seen them pick up a book, bitterly complain that their kids are not afforded the same opportunities. This is pure, unadulterated bullshit. There were many white students from poor and working-class backgrounds when I was a student at the Harvard Law School forty years ago. What struck me was how similar our paths to Cambridge had been: parents who were actively involved in their childrens’ educations, who cared enough to attend parent-teacher conferences, get to know the teachers, check homework assignments, turn off the television on school nights, meet with guidance counselors, provide quality reading material, and set examples of continued learning. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery, and you don’t need money to accomplish it – if you truly care. And education is a shared enterprise, a partnership, not just the responsibility of the school system. Barack Obama’s mother regularly got him up at 4:00 a.m. to go over his school assignments before she went to work; Michelle Obama’s mother allowed only one hour of television on school nights and monitored her schoolwork on a daily basis. How many of The League of the Invincibly Stupid can make such claims? Yet these blue-collared rednecks, who believe that black Americans have gotten a free ride – when we’ve never gotten a free anything - will be the targeted group for the politics of racial resentment, and Republicans wrote the book on mining this particular vein of bigotry. Barack Obama will face a firestorm of epic proportion.

But we as black Americans have to step up and do our share if Senator Obama is to achieve the dream – something I never thought I would see in my lifetime. In 2004, there were over 400,000 eligible black voters in Ohio who never even bothered to register. That is a proper disgrace. A fraction of those voters would have given John Kerry the State of Ohio and the presidency. Thirty-five years ago, when I was a newly-minted young lawyer in Washington, D.C., I met and became friendly with a dynamic young city councilman who hired me as his attorney and in turn became my political mentor. This fellow was brilliant (he had completed all-but-dissertation for a Ph.D in chemistry at the University of Tennessee), one of the sharpest strategic thinkers I had ever known, with a great future ahead of him. In the 1960s, he had been elected the first president of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. He had been arrested over fifty times for civil rights demonstrations. His name was Marion S. Barry. Okay, go ahead and finish laughing, but this was before he became Mayor of Washington and lost control of his life. Anyway, he would invite me to take long evening walks with him through the most depressed black neighborhoods of Washington, and right on the street corners he would talk to the residents about the importance of registering to vote and participating in the process. Many times he’d hear “Ain’t no politician ever done nothin’ for me.” He would reply “And brother, ain’t no politician ever gonna do nothin’ for you if you don’t get up off your ass and get in the game! I went to jail fifty times for your rights. Man, people died! You dishonor them and their memory by not voting.” Marion was very direct and plain- spoken in that way, and quite effective. Believe it or not, I heard something similar just last week, and from a black contemporary: “I’m not voting because there’s no difference between Democrats and Republicans.” I immediately shot back: “Are you telling me that there’s no difference between Thurgood Marshall and Clarence Thomas?” He then got it.

And we need to ensure that everyone in our communities gets it. This is a watershed moment in our history. There are currently four Supreme Court Justices who are older than John McCain. The next president will almost certainly have two and possibly four appointments to the Supreme Court. We cannot afford another Thomas or Scalia or Roberts or Alito, all bitter ideologues who are openly hostile to the aspirations of our children and grandchildren, who would deny them their fair chance at the Christmas package of American promise. Too much at stake this time around.

There are not two sides in this debate. Not for us.

Sarah Palin has pronounced herself a “pitbull with lipstick.” Fine. Bitch, it’s on!

“Edward V. Harkness”