I understand why Obama shies away from confronting race. I know because I do it myself sometimes, and really the President is much more justified when he does it than I am, since it could negatively impact his ability to effect change. My reasoning, however, is essentially the same: there are few things more politically incorrect in 2009 as calling out racism, even when it is obvious.
The reaction to President Carter's interview is Exhibit A. Here we had a former President accurately identify the motivation behind some of the most irrational displays of animosity towards a sitting President. In response, we see some self-identified liberals claim his statements are baseless, or even demand that he apologize. Are some liberals really so afraid to be labeled "race-baiters" or accused of using the "race card" that they would now demand an apology from perhaps our most courageous living President for simply giving a truthful assessment of our current predicament?
There were some who believed that President Obama's election would heal our racial divides, but it feels as though those divisions are becoming deeper than they have been in my lifetime, and this denial of racially motivated hostility is putting ethnic minorities in a position of weakness. Again, I understand why Obama feels he must deflect questions of race; why it's important that Gibbs stand up at the podium and state that President Obama does not feel the same as President Carter on this matter; why some who should be allies in this struggle want to look the other way. We have a lot of problems that need fixing. I get it. What I don't understand, however, is why self-identified liberals would not only look away from this ugly reality, but actively deny it. This "post-racial" denial, which has been going on for several years, but which is now a regular part of the discussion on race, has not only emboldened the fringe to propagate their hate, it has made it even more difficult for those of us who experience this hate to confront it, and it has even infected some of those with whom we work side by side to effect progressive change. Yesterday, and again today, I had such an experience.
I am a Chicano. My father was born in Durango, Mexico. He and his family came to the US when he was 8 years old. My mother is half Nicaraguan and half Caucasian. My maternal grandmother, who was Caucasian, died when my mother was just 14, thus I never met her. In fact, I've never met a single relative who was entirely of European descent. As a result, my identity is intrinsically tied to the experience of being an American born Latino.
On the other hand, I look as white as Karl Rove. I have blue eyes, and mostly Eureopean features. At various points in my life, I've been affectionately nicknamed Huero, Chele, and Miklo, all in reference to my whiteness. I have little doubt that this has benefited me in my life. I can't point to many specific examples, but I do know that I've had more success up to now developing a white collar career than most of my friends and relatives, and it's not as though I'm more talented or educated or hard working. At some point my appearance had to make a difference. I might be more ambitious, but I feel as though the general receptiveness I get as someone who appears white has contributed to that.
The downside to not matching the stereotypical description of my ethnic identity is that people of other races that I interact with are sometimes more direct with their prejudice against Latinos. Some might argue that it's advantageous to know how people really think, but it can be very stressful. If I call out a racist remark, I become "that guy", the one who's always stirring up racial conflict. I've been "that guy" before. It stinks. You're subtly ostracized. Eventually, your presence is not really wanted at all.
I try to make it clear to those I work or socialize with, but even people who know my background, will sometimes say something negative about Latinos in my presence. Perhaps they don't perceive me as being one of "the other" due to my appearance. Regardless of what it is, someone who knows me, someone with whom I must interact with on a daily basis, crossed that line yesterday.
In a group setting, we were discussing education. I began talking about an experience of one of my co-workers who recently had to pull her sons out of their school because it was so poorly run. One of her concerns was that her son's math teacher could not communicate effectively because of his heavy accent. Out of nowhere, the guy I was discussing this with replied, "it's getting awful - over half the students in (unnamed elementary school) are Hispanic." I didn't know how to respond. I gave him a look but said nothing. I just didn't want to be "that guy".
When I went home last night, I was really stressed. Feeling the need to vent, I told my wife about the incident, which usually helps, but not this time. I mean, this individual is a pretty decent guy. He works hard to support a progressive institution. His free time is often used promoting Democrats and Democratic causes. He's passionate about health care, and unions, and the plight of workers in general. I'm just starting to get the feeling that he might only care about those causes as they apply to people like him.
It's not the first time I detected some ethnocentrism from him. In our discussions about world affairs, he often condemns the amount of aid we give to other countries. It doesn't hit home the same way, however, as when that ethnocentrism is excluding most of the people I love. Regardless, I was determined to move beyond this, as the social setting of our interaction is important to me.
Unfortunately, yesterday's wound was blasted wide open today. Again in a group setting, the discussion was the city of Houston. This individual thought it pertinent to point out how the construction sites have no white workers. I asked him, what of it? Why was that factoid relevant? His reply was that they, meaning Mexicans, were undercutting wages, and that they weren't union, etc. Asked how he came to such conclusions, he replied that they, this time meaning developers, were bringing guys from over the border to take our, I suppose meaning Caucasians', jobs. At this point I was boiling. I asked him how he could possibly know whether those brown people were immigrants, in a city where over a third of the population is of Mexican descent, in a state where many Tejano family's roots go deeper than nearly every Caucasian who lives there. He replies with little more than "I bet you".
Later, alone in an elevator with him, with a stupid grin on his face, he tells me, "My sister-in-law is Mexican. She's a real nice lady."
My acquaintance is a bigot. He's a real nice man.
Anyhow, I'm probably now "that guy". It's not going to affect me at work, but I'll have to just wait and see how it's going to play out in this particular setting. He doesn't seem interested in backing down. Even in the elevator he continued to defend his position. It may already be more stressful than I'm willing to tolerate.
I know that, to some of you, the causes that are at stake are too important to have derailed with a racial debate right now. In fact I agree to a certain extent, so if some feel like looking the other way when racial prejudice is on display, I can understand where you're coming from. All I ask for is that you don't condemn those who are pointing out the obvious, and that you avoid attacking the merit of such claims when they are staring you in the face.