Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Pay No Attention to the Man Behind Bars

I also hate cartoons like this one (via Jenny Crusie's blog, with links to more like it):

Yes, Barack Obama's election was a minor victory over American racism; I don't deny that. I never quite believed I'd live to see an African American President elected, and I figured that if I did, they'd be a reactionary like Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell. As I said before, I don't mean to rain on the parade of black and brown people who were understandably excited about Obama's achievement. What depressed me about the euphoria last week, among other things, was the self-congratulation of white Americans who overstated the significance of the event.

If you're going to point to a single black person's success as proof that America is a Land of Opportunity, why not point to Oprah, or Michael Jordan, or any number of other successful people of color? But Uncle Sam and the cartoonist who drew him are also muttering, "Pay no attention to the man behind bars -- hundreds of thousands of him. Pay no attention to the black children who are getting abysmally substandard educations in our apartheid school system. Pay no attention to the everyday racism that still permeates American society, not always expressed in lynching or a hail of police bullets, but it still degrades the quality of life of most African Americans. Focus all your attention on that One Man who managed to climb to the top; don't worry about all his brothers and sisters who are still on the bottom."

I'm not being picky picky picky here. Most white Americans still believe that blacks and whites have an equal chance of getting ahead in our society. I believe they thought so even when American white racism was more shamelessly explicit. I expect that Obama's election will encourage this perception.

Somewhere I read that in his later years, Thurgood Marshall (another first, the first African-American Justice of the Supreme Court) said that he could no longer in good conscience go around speaking to schools telling young black kids that if they worked hard, they could be the one black Supreme Court Justice when they grew up. And that brings to mind a sign that a friend of mine had on the door of her dorm room:

Sexual equality doesn't mean that a female Einstein gets an assistant professorship, it means that a female schlemiel gets promoted as easily as a male schlemiel.

By the same standard, the election of one African American to the White House does not mean racial equality.

One cartoonist who gets this is Garry Trudeau, an episode of whose Doonesbury I linked to last week. In that strip, a white American soldier in Iraq reacting to Obama's election exults, "We did it! ... He's half-white, you know!" A black soldier sitting next him smiles, "You must be so proud." A commenter at the site argued that it was reasonable for a white American to be proud of the achievement of Obama's white half. It would be, if the election of a white President were an event of any moment, but one thing we've not had in the United States is a shortage of white male presidents.

P.S. I just noticed that the cartoonist left out the barrier wall along the U.S. border with Mexico, let alone our many legal barriers to immigration, or even tourism. "See? This is the Land of Opportunity! So eat your hearts out, you poor huddled masses, and stay out!"