Saturday, February 13, 2010

Here's What I Think...

What I've observed and experienced is that many people have an opportunity (or perhaps more than one) in that decade between age 40 and age 50 to make life-changing decisions. These decisions may be triggered by a feeling of restlessness, a loss of some kind, by a health or financial challenge, or perhaps all of the above. Sometimes it takes a trauma to get our attention when we are headed in the wrong direction; otherwise we keep rolling along in our little groove until it becomes a rut, then a grave.

I believe President Barack Obama, who will be 49 this year, is being presented with his opportunity to change as he presides over the U.S. government. It appears that in his thirteen months in office, he has been unable to please anyone. Progressives are deeply disappointed and Republicans are orgasmic about their ability to sabotage everything Obama wants to accomplish. The problems he is grappling with, and that the U.S. Congress is diddling over, have been 30 years or longer in the making. However we live in a society with a 24 hour news cycle that relies on signifying, sensationalism, and provoking outrage. Americans have come to feel entitled to INSTANT solutions to everything, no matter how complex the issue.

I, too, have been less than pleased about several of President Obama's choices--escalating the war in Afghanistan, bailing out the banks, reluctance to wholeheartedly support the constitutional rights of lesbians and gays. However, I knew when I voted for him that he did not have a magic wand with which to wave away our problems.

But more than that I knew that his well-intentioned efforts to pull all sides together so that the government could actually accomplish something in a bipartisan fashion would likely not work. I applaud him for the sentiment, because it is a good one. And it may actually happen when the condition of the country is desperate enough for masses of people to storm Congress and insist on concrete, viable results. And that day will come. The recent price hikes by the health care industry are simply the tip of the iceberg. The plutocracy ain't done with us yet.

However, I doubt that Obama will still be president when our politicians begin working together. The big lesson that Obama is learning (although I imagine Michelle tried to tell him), is that racism is a cherished tradition in the United States of America. For many whites the only power they have is their imagined superiority to blacks. That's who they are. To recognize and respect Barack Obama as their president would be an evisceration of their identity. And as usual, politicians exploit the racist feelings of their constituents (and their own racism) as cover for their self-aggrandizing power plays.

We Americans of African descent who inherited the lessons of how to cope with racism from our parents and grandparents, anticipated that a segment of whites in this country simply would not, could not, bring themselves to respect a black man in a position of authority. The most obvious example of that disrespect was the S.C. congressman shouting out "liar" as the President addressed congress.

I've seen this same lack of respect for black authority so many times I can't list them all. It happens among coaches (except in the NBA), where blacks are allowed less time to build a team before they are fired, but it has also happened with the election of black mayors (the council wars in Chicago when Harold Washington was elected), black university presidents (Adam Herbert at Indiana University in 2003), and with black managers and supervisors in the corporate world.

Those of us who were schooled in the minutia of racism have some preparation for maneuvering around this internalized skepticism about our abilities that many whites, and some blacks, have. What we know for sure is that it takes impenetrable firmness and rock-solid confidence. Obama obviously has the confidence, otherwise he never would have sought the presidency, but he still has some lessons to learn about how to deal with racists who are known to mistake kindness for weakness.