In January a diarist on Daily Kos, recounted the writer's conversation with her "racist" father, who said he would vote for Obama:
He would vote for Obama over Huckabee. He says he would really have to hold his nose to do it, but he would. I asked him "what's your big objection to Obama?" He said well, he thinks Obama would further a "black agenda" and I said "what's that?" He said, oh you know, more affordable housing, which black people would tear up and destroy, and more welfare. I sort of rolled my eyes and said "Dad...........Barack and Michelle Obama both have advanced degrees and are bigtime overachievers...........do you really think they have a lot of sympathy for people that take advantage of the welfare system and tear up affordable housing?"Another "Kossack," shanikka, a black woman attorney and former public official exactly the same age as Barack Obama, wrote to say:
I said, in my view, Barack Obama would be to the kind of people he is talking about, sort of like a "Nixon goes to China" thing...........if anything, they would be totally against that sort of thing.
He said "sort of like Bill Cosby" I said yeah exactly.
I really really apologize to any African American Kossacks that are reading this. These are not MY views. It's my Dad - which I am afraid is still too much the views of a lot of older white people who vote in droves, still.
IMO, the sentiments the diarist used to "sell" her Dad on Barack Obama as a Black man running for president are racist. Each of the examples she made to her father about the "differences" of Barack Obama is grounded in a deeply negative, anti-Black stereotype. The fact that they were not "get a rope" lynching stereotypes does not change their nature. They reflect the post-civil rights movement social compact which substituted newfangled polite left-wing anti-Black racism (code) for her dad's far more honest (and therefore far easier for Black folks who actually love Black folks to deal with, as my parents often said once they left the South in the 1950’s) right-wing anti-Black racism.
Part of the problem is the unspoken American conceptual frame: radical individualism; defining race as a characteristic of individuals; racism as an belief of individuals about other individuals; equality as consciously judging an individual without regard for "skin color," as if race were just a question of complexion, and behavior were just a function of conscious belief.
Race is a code for classifying people as different. Skin color is one of many markers for "race" -- the one we use in the U.S. These markers are social constructs. In Brazil or South Africa, someone with parents like Obama's would not be considered "black," because race is a spectrum in Brazil and was a pseudo-scientific multiple classification in South Africa. In the U.S., the historical definition of race was the one-drop rule; but this used to be different in Louisiana, which was more like the Caribbean/Latin world in its construction of race. For Nazis, hair color, nose size, and religious background were markers of race (that's why some of my relatives were killed).
My wife is a social worker in Bedford-Stuyvesant who sees mostly black people -- not typical black people, but those with severe psychological and social problems. But I hear about the family histories. And these family histories are the result of trauma, unemployment, marginalization, forced migration, rape, exclusion from education .... you name it. Sometimes it is amazing that anyone can emerge sane and whole from these experiences (though not all black people share all of them in the U.S.). "Race" is a category for color-coding the socially marginalized.
Some people intellectualize it into a theory or belief system. In contemporary American most people don't. But the social system in which we live produces and reproduces such attitudes because of the interactions it makes us have.
A seemingly trivial example about myself: Once I couldn't find something in a huge supermarket. I saw a neatly dressed black guy with short hair and a pen in his shirt pocket, so I went over to ask him where it was. It turned out he was another shopper -- he wasn't a supermarket worker. He didn't have the uniform on. I was mortified at my stereotyping racist behavior. I wasn't even thinking about race! I was thinking about organic breakfast cereal.
That's the point. I wasn't thinking about race. I don't "believe" that all blacks are supermarket workers or social inferiors. My adviser at Yale was a black professor of Afro-American history, and I was his research assistant on a book on the history of black communities under slavery. But my social experience led me unconsciously -- without thinking -- to code my fellow shopper as a social inferior in this context. I am not a "racist" in any ideological sense. My mother took me to hear Dr. King speak at the March on Washington when I was 13 (I have a dream etc.). I marched with the Black Panther Party in the 1960s. Etc. etc. But I committed an act of racism (and probably others) because of the way that social structure affects my perceptions and behavior. What if I were a teacher or a policeman or an employer? What effect would I unconsciously have on others?
I'm not confessing "guilt." I am taking responsibility for trying not to be a racist in a racially coded society. Not being a Nazi or an ideological white supremacist is not enough, because this system (racism) reproduces itself even without such ideological rationales as long as we don't consciously struggle against it (and even then...).
The conclusion being: many white (and other non-black) people may vote for Obama regardless of his race because he is an extraordinary individual. But that by itself does not change the racially coded social structure of the United States. Maybe Obama will be the leader who can help whites realize that changing this social structure is not a threat against them but a promise for us all. I hope so. Maybe his candidacy will at least get us started on these discussions.
But eliminating racism requires a transformation of structures of employment, housing, education, taxation.... and also a change in U.S. national identity. Most people in the U.S. have European ancestors (including a large number of black people), but our culture is a mix of African, European, and our own creativity. "White" gospel music in this country shows strong African influences. So does "white" popular music and popular religion. The people of this country invented forms of music -- an essential part of all civilization -- that have conquered the world with their genius and beauty, and in this music African and European elements are fused into an entirely new creation.
Now the update -- reading this today I became conscious that the first diarist above used the common shorthand on Daily Kos for members of the site -- "Kossacks." For Jews whose ancestors came from the former Russian empire (those parts that were previously part of the Polish Commonwealth), the word "cossack" evokes memories of pogroms, of rape and killing. I am old enough to have heard these stories. My wife's paternal grandmother told of a pogrom in her village (in Kamenetz-Podolsk) where the pogromists cut off the baker's hands so he could not knead bread. My wife's maternal grandmother was in Odessa during the pogroms of 1905, when the Tsar tried to blame the Jews for the 1905 revolution. A Christian (probably Russian) neighbor hid their family. When the pogromists (known as Black Hundreds) came by, they came out with a cross and swore there were no Jews in the house. You can read "fictional" depictions of these events in the stories of Isaac Babel, who also lived through them and saw the corpses littering the streets.
Of course to Don Cossacks -- the people described in the work of Mikhail Sholokhov, it must be painful to be stereotyped as anti-Semitic pogromists. Jews, Ukrainians, and Poles will never agree about the seventeenth century Cossack leader Bogdan Chmielnitski, the national hero of Ukraine (his statue is in the center of Kyiv). Poles remember him for killing Poles, and Jews remember him as one of history's biggest killer of Jews before the twentieth century. You can read a Jewish depiction of that period in Isaac Bashevis Singer's The Slave. The trauma of those massacres gave rise to the chiliastic movement that formed around the false messiah, Shabtai Zvi, who married a daughter of a survivor of the "Chmielnitski massacres" and whose preaching led thousands of Jews to sell their belongings and pack in preparation for their return to the Land of Israel -- Palestine. They thought that the massacres were "hevlei mashiah" -- the birth pangs of the Messiah. Today the followers of Rav Kook -- the founder of the Merkaz ha-Rav seminary (yeshiva, bait midrash, madrasa) where the March 6 massacre took place -- also pray that today's conflict should become those birth pangs. I wonder if Condoleeza Rice has any ideas how deep are the streams she is tapping when she talks about the "birth pangs of a new Middle East."
When Shabtai Zvi met with the Sultan in Istanbul in 1667, he emerged from the Sublime Porte a convert to Islam. His followers claimed that the real Shabtai Zvi had ascended to heaven and that only an empty "vessel" remained behind. They too pretended to convert to Islam and became a sect of Judaizing pseudo-Muslims known in Turkey as the Donme. The Islamic foes of Kemal Ataturk claimed that he was a Donme, and it appears that some members of the Young Turks were. Many of the Donme were in Salonika (today's Thessaloniki, in Greece). Hitler killed the remnants.
Nonetheless, the legend of the Young Turks and the Donme feeds anti-Jewish currents among Islamists. And Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and others reading this might ask, "Why should the Palestinians be driven from their homes because of Chmielnitski and Hitler?" I noticed that despite all his truth telling, the one group that Obama studiously pandered to was my own, as he criticized those who blame the Middle East conflict on "the actions of stalwart allies like Israel, instead of emanating from the perverse and hateful ideologies of radical Islam." Need I note that when the conflict between the Zionist movement and the Palestinian Arabs began, Sayd Qutb had not yet been offended by a dance in Greeley, Colorado, and perhaps had not even been born.
Still, some Arabs and Muslims propagate the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery used by the Tsarist secret police to justify the 1905 pogroms. On Labor Day 1990, just a few days after I moved to New York, I went to the Caribbean Day parade in Brooklyn and found an Afro-centric nationalist selling copies of the Protocols -- edited by the well known Afro-centric liberationist Henry Ford (yes the one with the Model T). Such confusions led some Arab nationalists to see Hitler a potential liberator from British imperialism and Zionism. Similar confusion led Ariel Sharon to see apartheid South Africa as a model for how Israel should control the Palestinians. It was Sharon who started this comparison, by the way, not the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Bishop Tutu, or any anti-Zionist or anti-Semitic propagandist.
History is a nightmare from which we all have to struggle, and keep struggling, to awake and stay awake.