2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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Avoidance is our answer to tough racial issues


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Charlie Mitchell
1/23/08 Sun Herald (Biloxi, MS) C3

There's an object lesson for the United States, and especially for Mississippi, in last week's dust-up over Hillary Clinton's comment about who played what role in the Civil Rights Movement.

It is this: Race lurks a subtext for almost everything that happens in this nation. Perhaps it always will.

There's probably no politician with stronger bona fides as a nonracist than the senator from New York. She has enjoyed the enthusiastic support of minorities in her two contests for public office.

Still, her rivalry with a black man for the Democratic nomination for the presidency hit a big-time bump.

Seeking to make a point about the importance of experience and having a person in the White House who is receptive to minority issues, she pointed out that for all the good the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King did in the streets, his efforts would have fallen short without Lyndon Baines Johnson who, as president, did what it took to actually get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through Congress.


While her observations were 100 percent accurate and there was no slight to Dr. King, one was perceived. The Georgia minister whose clear voice and words challenged the nation to face up to its history of discrimination against blacks had been "dissed." Her chief rival for the nomination, Barack Obama called her characterizations "ill-advised." Sen. Clinton had said something racist by merely pointing out that the black man, whose birth was commemorated with a national holiday Monday, required some help from a white man.

As per usual, Sen. Clinton immediately positioned herself as a victim before the next news cycle. She accused the Obama campaign of deliberately distorting what she had said. The Illinois senator called that ridiculous. Back and forth the rhetoric intensified. For a day or two race mattered more than programs, policies or ideas.

It shouldn't pass without serious thought that 40 years after the assassination of Dr. King, his belief that a day could come when people would be evaluated based on what they said and did as opposed to their pigmentation remains unrealized.

It's a door that swings both ways. Many whites are sorely rankled when, say, black policemen are taped beating a white person and it doesn't get nearly the press coverage or speechifying by Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson that arises when the race configuration is reversed. No one would know anything about Jena, La., except the people who live there, if the teens in the Jena Six fracas were all white or all black. It would have been just kids fighting, not even reported in the local weekly newspaper.

Many blacks are sorely rankled at statistics showing black defendants receiving longer sentences, on average, than whites for the same crimes.

Many whites see pushes for diversity in hiring and promotions as artificial.

Many blacks resent that even after working hard and advancing based on their merit they are nonetheless perceived as having been promoted based on their color.

Many whites don't understand why it would lead to immediate termination if they spoke in the workplace the same racial epithet they heard 35 times booming from an adjacent car's stereo at the stoplight that morning.

Many blacks can't fathom why whites don't understand why they are offended by the Confederate flag.

Across the nation and in this state, elections and civil service hearings and choosing PTA officers take on one tenor if everyone involved is the same race and take on a different tenor when different races are involved.

Always, with due respect to Elvis, there are suspicious minds. Where we wouldn't hesitate to question the motives of a person of our same color for making a comment, the same comment made by a person of a different color is seen through the filter of race.

The only really bogus aspect of all this is that we try to pretend our sensitivities and perceptions have no bearing on our actions. They do. They fuel the lingering mistrust evident in the Clinton-Obama incident.

Mistrust is a form of fear. Psychobabblists tell us the way to defeat fears is confront them.

But most choose not to speak openly or frankly about how race still matters in our culture. Instead, that which divides us continues to bubble below the surface of polite discourse - except when it bursts to the surface in the form of accusations when, as with Sen. Clinton, words aren't chosen carefully enough.


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