Published in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel on Tuesday, October 30, 2012, under “Racism and the race: It seems that some can’t accept a black president.”
I finished reading Alistair Cooke’s “The American Home Front: 1941-1942” during a recent flight to San Diego. It recounts travels across the United States to record American impressions about World War II. It and also reveals his eye for social justice, particularly as it relates to black and Hispanic populations.
Cooke describes an America united against its enemies abroad and determined to provide showers for white soldiers, but none for blacks; a time of Tuskegee Airmen and a farm owner in California who decries a labor shortage by saying, “Mexicans used to be two for a dime. Now you have to go down on your knees to hire ‘em. And nowadays, they’ve gotten ideas, from Mr. Roosevelt, I guess. They want showers.”
“That was then,” I thought, before focusing on the object of the trip, a visit with a Milwaukee childhood friend whose Catholic education, like mine, culminated in Marquette University and its emphasis on social justice. Before the plane landed I recalled that back then the color line in Milwaukee was 35th Street.
The next day my friend told me that racism was a thing of the past. He added, “Besides, if we hadn’t brought blacks to this country they wouldn’t have the opportunities we’ve given them and they’d just be over in Africa dying.” The remark emerged during lunch from a discussion about the November election. Given that my friend stands to the right of Republican the conversation was ill-advised. Nevertheless, I responded and was called judgmental and we moved on. Days later my friend resurrected “send them back to Africa.”
On my flight back I wondered how we could have travelled from common ground to what now seemed to me like different planets. A week later, Jason Thompson, stumping for his U.S. Senate candidate father, Tommy, told Kenosha County Republicans, “We have the opportunity to send Obama back to Chicago—or Kenya.” Next, Clear Channel Outdoor announced it would pull down vote-dampening billboards in black and Hispanic neighborhoods in Wisconsin showing a large gavel and the text: “Voter Fraud is a Felony 3 ½ years and $10,000 fine.”
This prompts a certainty that despite the social justice gains we think we have made since WWII, current evidence works against that thinking. Here at home it crawls out at a checkout line in Dodgeville when, apropos of St. Patrick’s Day, an associate offers, “My daddy said an Irishman is just a black man turned inside out.”
And within the week, Sarah Palin has accused the president of “shuck and jive shtick” on Benghazi and John Sununu dismissed Colin Powell’s endorsement of the president as one based on race.
The political gridlock we constantly bemoan may have little to do with red vs. blue politics and more with that ugly white over them come ‘round again, personified by a whole lot of Americans who seem unable to accept a black president.
In “Fear of a Black President” in September’s The Atlantic, Ti-Nehisi Coates quotes comedian Dave Chappelle’s joking that “the first black president would need a ‘Vice President Santiago’ because the only thing that would ensure his life in the White House was a Hispanic president-in-waiting.”
Before my trip to San Diego I’d have thought that maybe there was some truth in Chappelle’s joke. Today, a week from November 6, the truth overshadows the joke.Too many of us, wherever we are, still draw the line at 35th Street.
Link to the essay in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel: http://www.jsonline.com/news/opinion/it-seems-that-some-still-cant-accept-a-black-president-8p7d5sd-176329071.html