Monday, January 19, 2009

Race and Pennsylvania Avenue

Tuesday, January 20th, 2009 will be a historic day on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Much has been made of the fact that Barack Obama will become the nation’s first black president. Tomorrow, he’ll make his way along Pennsylvania Avenue, from Capital Hill to the White House – following the same route that saw Thomas Jefferson’s own inaugural procession – followed by caravans of African slaves bound for market at 7th Street, British Regulars on their way to burn the White House, Abraham Lincoln and his wife on the way to Ford’s Theater, Ku Klux Klan parades, and Civil Rights marches led by Dr. Martin Luther King to name but a few of the historic events that have occurred along this stretch of road – and at the end of that journey he will raise his right hand and take the Oath of Office as President of the United States of America.

And in that moment, this country will change forever.

Most of us, at least I hope we are a majority, think this is great thing.

There is, of course, a subdued (and not so subdued) minority who seem to feel this event marks the beginning of the End of Days, biblical or otherwise, or at least the end of America as we know it. They’ll watch the inauguration tomorrow in fear and trepidation all the while bemoaning the demise of America. They won’t see tomorrow as a great day, a turning point, a benchmark on the road to realization of the American dream for all Americans, or another step towards realization of the full potential of the Constitution - but rather they see tomorrow as an ignoble day of shame.

Many of these folks are the same people who spoke of freedom and liberty a decade ago when the Berlin Wall came down. Many waxed rhapsodically patriotic about righting the injustices of oppression and inequality – when it came to East Germans. They’ll turn on the inauguration tomorrow, but they’ll keep the sound muted and they’ll talk about Kennedy and Reagan, now those were great presidents.

Some of these folks are out and out racists and make no bones about it, and the mere thought of a black man looking out from the windows of the Oval Office fills them with horror and fear and disgust. They’ll sit home tomorrow, drinking cheap beer and counting their guns. They’ll polish their swastikas and SS Death’s Head pins and tell themselves that they’re the only real Americans left. Most of them are too damned cowardly to do much more than talk. But some, well, they’ll be a problem for the FBI and the Secret Service and they’re the reason why the President Elect will ride the length of Pennsylvania Avenue in a custom-made bulletproof monstrosity nicknamed “The Beast.” You couldn’t pay them to watch the inauguration tomorrow.

Some of these folks tell themselves that they are not racist. Well maybe just a little, but they don’t talk about it, they don’t go to rallies or anything. They don’t actually use the N-word - not in polite company anyway. Hell, they believe a black man could be president – just not yet, maybe some day far in the future when blacks are maybe better qualified to be national leaders – but, you know, that doesn’t have anything to do with race. It’s an education thing. This is the worst kind of racism of all. This is the racism of the 1950’s, the Leave It To Beaver racism, out of sight and out of mind and everybody in their place. This is the type of racism that can look upon a Columbia University and Harvard Law School graduate and sees only an uneducated member of the inner city stereotype. This the type of racism that says most slaves were happy and better off as slaves and that minorities today should be grateful for what freedom they have and not seek beyond it. Tomorrow, they won’t watch the inauguration, they’ll critique it. They’ll provide a critical and derisive breakdown of everything from the new President’s elitist smile to the new First Lady’s horrible posture and hairdo, to the disrespectful way the Obama children are dressed. They’ll sigh and tell their friends how it’s just too damned bad, but race has nothing to do with it. Nothing.

Some of these folks are secret racists. They hide their racism even from themselves. These are the folks who deny their racism loudly to anyone who will listen – and then go so far as to deny that racism even exists anymore in America. They say they’d even vote for a black man – just not this black man. But, it’s not the color of his skin, no, it’s the fact that he somehow stole the election, or he’s a Muslim, or his pastor is a black supremacist, or he’s going to take away our guns, or that he’s a liberal, or his ears are too big, or because his wife is a bitch who hates America, or the fact that he wasn’t born in America at all, or maybe it’s just because he’s a product of the corrupt Chicago Political Machine. Tomorrow, these folks will watch the inauguration and keep interrupting to explain how the new administration will fail within the first six months, then all the damned liberals will be sorry. They won’t mention race, well, other than to say how isn’t it a shame that the administration is pandering to African Americans instead of focusing on the economy or the war or whatever the issue of the day is.

And then there are the people like me, who despite all my efforts and high ideals, began this post by noting that tomorrow a black man will become President of the United States. In this, I guess I’m no different than any of the thousands of others who wrote or spoke on this very subject today. This inauguration is significant for many reasons, not the least of which is that it marks the end of an eight year long nightmare, but the first thing any of us note is that a black man is about to become president.

And that’s a form of racism too.

It’s subtle, but no less true for being so.

Two hundred years ago, blacks walked Pennsylvania Avenue as slaves, chattel, property. A hundred years ago blacks travelled Pennsylvania Avenue as second class citizens. Tomorrow, a black man will ride along that storied road as President of the United States.

America has changed and it’s been a long and often painful trip.

And this event is only a single stop in that journey.

Barack Obama is the first, he won’t be the last. Someday, a citizen will ride along Pennsylvania Avenue to became President, and on that day, a person’s skin color will not be noteworthy. And it’s on that day, that racism will truly be dead in this country.

Tomorrow we take another step in that direction.


  1. I was born in 1958. My wife in 1957. My sister in 1955. PEBO? 1961.

    When I look at the inauguration, I will be seeing my first President who is younger than I am. Three years younger? Those were a big three years in the early 1960s.

    A sea change indeed.

    Dr. Phil

  2. Jim, I'm not sure if the observation that President Obama is black is a form of racism. (It certainly isn't from a dictionary's perspective.) I understand what you're saying, but I think you unconsciously minimize what you yourself acknowledge in the following two sentences: it wasn't merely a century ago that a black man was a second-class citizen, it was as recent as fifty years ago. When President Obama's parents met, it was illegal for them to marry throughout much of the country. LBJ's Voting Rights Act, which eliminated the last official and legal barriers to black enfranchisement nationwide, was signed into law when President Obama was four.

    (And, of course, de facto--as opposed to the de jure legalized discrimination of the Jim Crow era, which came to an end in the late '60s--continues to the present. DWB--"Driving While Black"--is regrettably real, as is the experience of millions of Americans who find themselves treated differently by department stores, restaurants, banks, etc. But you know this, I'm not trying to lecture and indeed I think I'm preaching to the choir here.)

    I understand what you're saying--it seems wrong to note President Obama's race when that is in so many ways a minor thing (I consider Obama "like me" in that he's a lawyer and a nerd who would feel astray without his smartphone--these are identifiers, too, and in some ways more important ones). But there should be a sense of both pride and the hard work left to do in the fact that Obama will be sworn in on the Bible that the author of the Dred Scott decision used to swear in the Great Emancipator in a Southern city; pride that in the space of a man's lifetime a man who could not have voted in many states prior to July 2, 1964 was elected President of the United States in 2008. Forty-four years isn't that long a time.

    Like you and Dr. King, I look forward to the day when the color of a man's skin is of less consequence than the contents of his character. But we've taken a hell of a great step forward, and I don't think it's wrong to take a moment (only a moment, let's not get too self-congratulatory when there's so much left to do) to bask in it.

  3. Eric, I don't think Jim is saying that noting that Obama is the first black president is racist in and of itself. However there is a runaway train of stupidity going on right now. Having experienced it first hand, it's amazing how the closet racists have been popping out.

  4. I just don't like his politics.

    Am I allowed to say that without someone accusing me of racism?


  5. I don't think anything will change.

    Tomorrow the media hubbub will taper off, in search of some other "breaking" news. The economy will still be shitty. I will still come to work apprehensive every day wondering for how long. I will still bemoan how my house lost it's value and so on and so forth.

    It's been a difficult 4 years, and a new dude is becoming President. I will wake up tomorrow hoping that he will do a better job than the previous dude did. That would be the only change. But the president is only a THIRD of our government. It begins there, but it's not the end of all the troubles.

  6. No matter what your orientation, the first of anything is always noted that way...the first man on the moon...the first woman in space...the first black president is no different. It is a form of honor and pride, not racism.

    Our (Dr. Phil's & my) father will be 90 in a week. Like many of his age, he never believed he'd live long enough to see a black man elected president and is thrilled to the point of giddiness when he talks about it.

    We've all talked the change talk, now we have to walk the change walk. For some it will be hard. For others, well, we who were raised to see the content of a person's character will forge ahead as we always have, lending our shoulders to those that need our help.

    Happy Inauguration Day.
    44 minutes and counting down to our date with history.


  7. Cassie -- about half the country doesn't like the politics of the other half at any given time. And within those halves are divisions and shadings of those politics. Though the elections often show up as Red/Blue decisions, politics is much more a continuous spectrum. Now I am assuming that our host's post is about those who hide something uglier behind their politics, not those whose political views differ. But political differences? What fun would a democracy be without a choice? (grin)

    Dr. Phil

  8. Various and sundry:

    I wrote this post for my own reasons and as an expression of my own thoughts - not to accuse any of you of anything, you deal with your own conscience on your own time.

    However: If you read the Whatever, there's a comment from "Steve" under today's post, let me quote a bit of it:

    ...I eagerly await the cult of Obama that will be on display tomorrow. The significance of the event is not lost on me but I am more convinced than ever that the election was about race and not about ability. Maybe that it is about race is sufficient at this point in history. If it helps end the outcry of racism that no longer exists then it will be worthwhile.

    Emphasis mine. This type of dreck appears under every news article I've read lately and it is precisely what inspired me to write this post. (It's also fairly typical of the people commenting on the Whatever nowadays, which I why I don't much anymore). Also, remember I live about 8 miles from Sarah Palin, surrounded by people who think she's the greatest thing since being able to own people you think are inferior.

    And one final note, you should see some of the search hits I get - this post is for them.

  9. Yeah, I'd seen Steve's small-minded screed over at the Whatever, and thought about that when I read yours. See? Great minds can think alike. (grin) Lesser minds stumble around and twaddle.

    Dr. Phil

  10. THANK YOU for your posts. You are one of the few bloggers I read religiously, mainly because I enjoy reading your perspective. You make me think critically: something I haven't done enough of since college. So, thank you.

  11. (It's also fairly typical of the people commenting on the Whatever nowadays...

    I wonder what John thinks about that.


  12. Cassie,

    Well, John comes by here upon occasion, and a number of his good friends such Yanni Kuznia are regular readers, so if I've said something he takes exception to, I'm sure he'll say something about it. Scalzi is certainly welcome to answer your question if he feels likes it. And my observation wasn't a slam on John Scalzi, rather the slowly souring atmosphere of Whatever commenters.

    I can't speak for him, but as a long time reader of John Scalzi's site, I'd say he's probably not particularly happy about it. The Whatever used to be a pretty fun place, a diverse and interesting bunch of people, both conservative and liberal, who even if they didn't agree at least respected each other for the most part and had a lot of fun bouncing opinions and ideas off each other. Go back and check out some of the archives and you'll see what I mean.

    But Scalzi has gotten fairly famous, both as a novelist and as a blogger - and that has drastically increased the amount of traffic through his site, and sure as God made little green apples, the shitheads showed up. The commenter, Steve, who Scalzi banished from the site today, is a fairly extremely example, but his attitude is typical - I'm just here to fuck with the libs. These folks aren't interested in conversation, they seem to resent Scalzi's popularity and seem to resent the general outlook of his regular readers. Take today's post for example, comment 3 by Andrew "But what to do when the OP is the troll?" WTF? If you think that Scalzi himself is an obnoxious troll, why do you come to his site? Andrew isn't witty or funny or even intelligent, he is just being an asshole. An increasing number of the commenters on Whatever are of the same ilk, they seem to hate the site, and hate John Scalzi, and hate those of us who've commented there for a long time. They seem angry, small minded, resentful, and just plain ugly. They're the same people who utterly ruined the Whateveresque.

  13. Jim, I didn't take what you said as a slam - I tend to agree with you that the dynamic of the Whatever site has changed. While I'm far more conservative than either of you, in general I've learned from you both and appreciated the opportunities. The troll (and that Andrew - is anyone else wondering if he's perhaps a former VP of SFWA?) make the discussions less interesting, just more vitrolic.


  14. Speaking for Steves everywhere, normally we aren't dicks. We're actually nice people. Take a Steve home with you today!

    I miss keeping up with the Whatever, I rarely get to read more than John's posts. I used to love commenting, but there was one too many fights (and yeah, I let some of it happen to me). I also would come home and my wife would ask, "So, you've been commenting on blogs again, haven't you," meaning I was chewing nails.

  15. Steve, you're from Ohio. A Steve from Ohio is by definition a great guy.


  16. Actually Steve Buccheit, you were one of my favorite people on the Whatever-that-was, the old crowd, and one of the people whose comments I enjoyed most, you and Chang and Dr. Phil and, well, most of the people who showed up here eventually.

    I used to comment there daily, usually multiple times daily, but it was a fun place. Now, no matter what the topic, somebody, usually a group of somebodies, shows up to piss in the pool. There's a certain type that just can't seem to stand others having a good time. Every damned comment is some nasty dig - it's not snark or wit, it's mean and unpleasant and rude and ignorant and small minded and utterly disrespectful. The Gretchen bit a while back is a perfect example, she jumped all over Scalzi and everybody else (the "Child Free" post), and when Scalzi told her to go away, she said she was there first and he should shut up! She didn't even realize that she spewing shit at the owner of the Blog. Just completely fucking stupid. And not just stupid, but stupid offended - Scalzi made one backhanded comment and people decided that it required a vitriolic attack.

    A lot of these people seem pretty damned bitter and offended all of the time - and it's not just Whatever and the Whateveresque, it's everywhere. These people, grown adults supposedly, act like snotty spoiled teenagers on 4Chan. The guy I mentioned above was offended at the general liberal bent of Whatever and determined to piss in everybody's breakfast cereal, this is no different than being offended that the church you stumbled into is full of Christians. The guy could have said, "Hey, I think Bush got a raw deal, here's why..." Instead of acting like a troll.

    And that guy is one of several dozen just like him who've taken up residence over there. It's tedious and I'm just turned off by it. I won't allow that shit here, but then I don't have to deal with 60,000 visitors a day either. Scalzi has my sympathy.

    Uh...sorry to sound angry myself, but I am sort of angry. I liked the Whatever, and I hate people who act like shitheads. This is a sore subject with me.

  17. Hey Jim, thanks. I also liked it when we all were there.

    I did go and read that comment thread. I think I hit the third comment of Steve's that Scalzi deleted. Third. There used to be a much better class of troll, on that got the hint quickly.

    I agree that a lot of people seem bitter (on both sides). Some of that may be layers of scab tissue.


Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.