We're still in a time warp

Monday, January 28, 2008

Can a white person criticize, disagree with or even "not show respect" toward an African-American without being accused of racism?

The question could be regarded as potentially divisive in itself, yet it has to be asked. To some, the question may appear to be a rhetorical device that attempts to shield subtly disguised racism. Others regard the answer to simply be "no".

The question is too broad to receive an unqualified response for all situations, but recent condemnation of both Hillary and Bill Clinton for innocent remarks lends support to an assertion that a negative response to the above question is generally correct.

Hillary Clinton received heavy criticism for the following remark:

"I would point to the fact that Dr. King's dream began to be realized when President Lyndon Johnson passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, when he was able to get through Congress something that President Kennedy was hopeful to do, the president before had not even tried, but it took a president to get it done. That dream became a reality, the power of that dream became real in people's lives because we had a president who said we are going to do it, and actually got it accomplished."

Although Martin Luther King, Jr., showed a great deal of courage in his years of working for Civil Rights and although King's "I had a dream" speech was a seminal event propelling the movement forward, Hillary Clinton was correct in her assertion that the most climactic event of the Civil Rights movement was the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Even if Hillary Clinton's assertion was regarded as elevating Johnson's role at the expense of King's role, that does not establish racism. The relative importance of historical figures is a subjective judgment and cannot be regarded as establishing bias based on race.

Bill Clinton was criticized for referring to Barrack Obama's image in the media as a "fairy tale". Was this a personal and disrespectful criticism of Obama? Yes. Was it racist? We don't understand how it can be regarded as such.

In order to consider whether such a criticism is racist, we must ask whether there have been any white candidates (or in this case, a white supporter of a white candidate) who have made personal and disrespectful remarks about white opponents.

Posing that possibility is, of course, sarcastic. White politicians frequently make disparaging remarks about each other. To regard a black political candidate as exempt from the rough and tumble of politics because of sensitivity toward a history of oppression against blacks is, at best, condescending.

Obama has indicated that he does not want any such exemption, at least he did last summer when he stated, "I think America is still caught in a little bit of a time warp: The narrative of black politics is still shaped by the '60s and black power. That is not, I think, how most black voters are thinking. I don't think that's how most white voters are thinking. I think that people are thinking about how to find a job, how to fill up the gas tank, how to send their kids to college. I find that when I talk about those issues, both blacks and whites respond well."

Obama did the right thing in response to criticism of Hillary Clinton's remarks. He told ABC News, "I don't think it was in any way a racial comment. That's something that has played out in the press. That's not my view."

However, Obama's comment came several days after the controversy erupted, reducing its effectiveness in clearing the toxic atmosphere clouding the campaign.

A danger to the Obama candidacy would be the perception that a black president would provide the nation with a fragile icon to unity that could shatter under the rough treatment typical of American politics.