When I was a kid in the 1960s, there was a favorite BBQ joint in my home town. It was a tiny little place attached to one end of the owner's home. For a buck, you got a chipped pork sandwich on a homemade bun -- made all the better by the finishing touch, which was to spread the outside of the bun with butter, slap it on a grill, and weight it down with a length of wood. The result was a thin, crispy, soaked through with butter and sauce, heart attack-inducing bit of heaven. I'm not sure I've had anything better in my life.
By the door was a sign reading "We reserve the right to refuse service to anyone." It took some years before someone filled me in on the meaning the sign had in this case. It wasn't there because chipped pork made some customers rowdy. It was a code for something that, by the late 60s, people had stopped posting directly. What it meant was "No coloreds."
Four decades later, I was a volunteer for Claire McCaskill's narrow loss for Missouri Governor in 2004. I was out there again in her equally-narrow winning run for the Senate in 2006. I wasn't the biggest volunteer, or the most diligent, but I took a couple of weeks off work and tromped over a fair part of two counties knocking on doors and smiling. I was working some rural areas, but most of them were areas with a lot of union folks who were strong Democrats. Only a few times did I get run off someone's porch, and only twice did someone threaten to punch and/or shoot me if I didn't go away. After hitting several hundred houses, none of whom knew I was coming, that seemed like a pretty good record. I'd have probably had more doors slammed if I was pushing Amway. I also did a lot of phone banking for the campaign, and while I got the phone slammed in my ear many times, and a lot of people telling me they wouldn't vote for McCaskill, the reason they usually gave was that they were mad about getting too many calls.
On no occasion did anyone tell me that they weren't voting for McCaskill because she was a woman. The closest it came was when someone complained to me about some dealings that had been made by her husband, but that was an item that had been in the news quite a bit, so I don't think it was particularly because of her gender.
This year, I phone banked for Barak Obama on only two occasions and likely called no more than a hundred voters, all of them in the Midwest. One in ten gave me some none-too-oblique reason for not voting for Obama, such as a mention of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and how we've "seen his kind before." One in twenty were a lot more blunt; they weren't going to let "the blacks" take over the country -- and that was by far the nicest way it was phrased.
From the perspective of one of the old white male oppressor class (and I say that quite seriously), racism does not seem to have changed much over the last forty years. It's still there, still ugly, and still drives some people's actions as much as it did before Selma. The number of people who are openly racist has been reduced, and I'd like to think that the number who have those feelings but don't share them has also seen a sizable decline. Still, the experiences I had on the phone have been echoed many times by those volunteering for the Obama campaign,
I know many people would never consider joining the KKK and who would never give the kind of answer I got on those one in twenty phone calls. They'll speak out loudly and often against racism. But at the same time, they speak with equal frankness about how "black people haven't taken advantages of the opportunities this country has given them," how African-Americans haven't advanced like other minority groups, and how they're tired, sick and tired, of having their tax dollars go to support them. They would all too easily nod along with Pastor Hagee railing against "lazy blacks" who couldn't even be bothered to save their own children from Katrina.
They don't even recognize this as racism. They call it being realistic. They point to Bill Cosby's remarks as proof that sensible African-Americans recognize the problem, and they nod sagely over the death of rap artists. To them, the statistics that show a disproportionately high number of African-Americans convicted for crimes isn't an indictment of the justice system, it's an indictment of "black culture." They wouldn't put up a sign that said "no colored allowed," but they aren't bothered by the "we reserve the right..." sign even if they know of an instance when the two are interchangeable.
The window of the Obama campaign office that was vandalized in Indiana (the window not smashed out) wasn't marked by swastikas, what the vandals wrote among the racist epitaphs was "God Bless America." Pretending that the vote for Barack Obama hasn't been affected by racism isn't wearing rainbow-colored glasses, it's wearing blinders.
As shown by the terrific work done by DHinMI, Hillary Clinton has clearly benefited from a racism that's both overt and covert, and which strongly afflicts a band across the center of the country.
Back in the 1960s, when I was chomping on BBQ and learning to decode the society around me, my mother was at work. She graduated the local high school in the 1950s, valedictorian of her class, and without the resources to go to college, plunged straight into a career. No one had to tell me how rare that was at the time. When I peddled my bike to cub scout meetings, my mom was the only one who couldn't take a turn as den mother. The term "latchkey kid" hadn't yet been invented, but no one had to decode for me the disdain when I showed up on my own, dragging some bag of store-bought cookies when the responsibility for treats swung around to me. I can't deny I resented it. And just as it took me time to understand that sign at the BBQ shack, it took me time to figure out the other end of the equation. It took me time to figure out why my valedictorian mother who could speak Latin, do more math in her head than most people can handle with a calculator, and inevitably see through a forest of distractions to find the source of a problem, was spending her nights practicing typing and stenography. Why she left the house at six each morning to be a secretary to bosses who were exclusively men.
And the funny thing is, despite a lot of changes since the 60s, I'm not sure that sexism has really gotten better. Yes, many more women work and the career opportunities are greater, but that probably has more to do with economic conditions that have nudged us toward two income households than it does toward a revolution in thinking.
Racism is ugly, but a large part of racism is also regional. Even in those regions, overt racism is regarded as unacceptable. Down in Marietta, Georgia, there's a bar owner selling T-shirts that show a picture of the children's book monkey, Curious George, along with the motto "Obama in '08." That's worse than reprehensible, but it's also limited to a single area and widely rebuked. You're not going to find a commentator on one of the news stations to defend this shirt (okay, maybe Pat Buchanan, but Buchanan is repugnant all on his own).
Sexism is ugly, it's widespread, and it's accepted by our society. For weeks, every time I wrote an email on anything political, one of the ads that showed up on my computer was for a Hillary Clinton-themed nutcracker, complete with "stainless steel thighs." This is a product that has been offered broadly, one that's been sold in stores across the country, one that I've seen on the shelves.
Pretending that misogyny doesn't play a role in Hillary Clinton's losses is easier than missing the ugly racism that undercuts Obama. You can't make a map that shows where sexism is and where it isn't -- because it's everywhere.
Why is that? Maybe it's because in the 1960s, the civil rights of African-Americans were firmly established through a series of legislative actions. Those "we reserve the right" signs might have still been there, but the "no colored allowed" signs were taken down. Even if there is still a percentage of the population -- a significant percentage -- who still harbor a pre-civil rights attitude, most people now recognize that both signs are abhorrent, that overt racism and covert racism, should not be allowed.
But in the struggle for women's rights, we . Just this past weekend, as hundreds of young men and women graduated from Washington University, they were joined on stage by a woman there to collect an honorary degree. That may seem a good thing, but the woman in this case was Phyllis Schlafly, and she didn't miss the opportunity to stick her tongue out again at feminists, reminding them that the Equal Rights Amendment had not become law. When it was introduced in the 1970s, both major parties made passage of the ERA part of their platforms. It was only in the 1980s, under the rising leadership of people like Reagan, Schlafly, and the merry band that we now consider neo-conservatives, that the GOP reversed its position and worked to sabotage passage of the ERA.
To this day, it remains acceptable to attack those seeking equal rights for women in ways that are not acceptable in going after those trying to seek equality among races. Just last year, a resolution to ratify the ERA was introduced into the Arkansas house. At first it seemed to have momentum for passage, but endless hectoring and mailings convinced twenty congressmen to withdraw their support.
Sure, no one was out there telling me that they weren't voting for Claire McCaskill because she was a woman, but that doesn't change the fact that she was running to become Missouri's first woman governor, or that she lost out to a man who not only lacked her experience, but who makes George W. Bush look like a genius. It doesn't change the fact that not only did the Supreme Court recently make an egregious decision in a case concerning a woman who had uncovered rampant sexism in her place of employment, but that such situations are still commonplace.
That the Democratic candidates were whittled down to an African-American and a woman is admirable. Both candidates have had to overcome enormous difficulties, and this is our best opportunity in a generation to make real strides. The work of fighting racism is not over. It may never be over, not so long as human beings harbor the genes that bend us toward drawing lines between "us" and "them." It's a fight we have to continue.
But as Barack Obama becomes the next president of the United States, let's make sure that we make progress on both fronts, by reviving and passing the ERA.