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Overheard at the metaphorical water cooler

As anyone who hasn't been living in a cave for the last several months knows, today Barack Obama became the acting President of the United States.  I dragged my sorry butt awake at 8 in the morning to watch the proceedings.  They were lovely and poignant and truly something that felt shared by every citizen of this country.

One thing I've noticed about Obama and anyone on his staff who makes public statements is that he avoids the topic of race.  He made a few little omages to racism in the inauguration speech, acknowledging the moment without being too dogmatic about it.  The implications of his election are pretty obvious.

...Or so I thought.  But now I'm not so sure it's so obvious.  Take what I overheard a classmate say:

"Everyone's talking about how this just means so much to black people.  But it's basically irrelevant.  George W. Bush was a white guy.  Did the fact that he was white have an effect on us [whites]?  Not really."

I'm between being horrified and embarrassed by this guy.  I'm so dumbfounded, in fact, that I'm finding it difficult to throw together a coherant rebuttal.  But I'm going to try here, for the sake of my own sanity.

Racism exists.  The only people who consistently say that racism doesn't exist are people who have lived such isolated, homogenous, or possibly ignorant lives that the best they cannot recognize their own hypocracy.  It is a deep primal instinct to be discriminating of those who are "different," "not of the tribe," "genetically defective."  It's a natural selection thing that must be consciously overcome.  Declaring "I'm not a racist" is almost always false.  "I do my best to live by the belief that all people deserve equal treatment under the law and by their fellows" is probably more accurate, if legalistic, statement, and even then most of us build in moralistic loopholes.

This is not to say that everyone, or even most of us, are vindictively or even intentionally racist.  And as we as a society become more refined in our definition of discrimination, institutionalized racism is waning.  It is by no means gone.  Statistically speaking, there should be about 15 black senators.  There is one--Roland Burris, who currently fills Obama's vacated seat.

The statistics inspire some to change, but more often they suppress the motivation to do so.  I've had many black classmates who consistently say that they're fighting an opposing current, that they can't get ahead of the curve, that the system is against them.  Obama's election sends a powerful signal that the "system," be it beurocracy, democracy, civil rights law, or something less definable, that the time for inspiration is here.  It tells them, you are a minority, but we are listening.  We hear you.  We are fighting for you.  Don't settle for less.

George W. Bush was the "settle for less" candidate, classmate.  He has never been an inspiring or inspired mind.  He was the public face of the right-wing hawks, and the rest of us didn't care enough to go vote for the other guy.  His white, Texan blandness was fine because we felt fine.  We weren't in a recession, we didn't have any outstanding internation crises to deal with, and frankly the Republican party had all the better strategists.

But over the last eight years we have seen our rights eroded, our financial system protections gutted, our industries become more irresponsible, and our international integrity disappear.  As a measure for any president, it is decidedly uninspiring.

Obama's race has always been a secondary factor next to his policies.  I don't know a single person who voted for him or against him because he was the black guy.  The very fact that race has become irrelevant to policy is the reason it's relevant to the demise of institutionalized racism.

That matters for all of us, black, white, asian, latino or other.  It says that we are better now than we were, and that all of us, especially oppressed people, have brighter hopes.  And if we have hope, all things are possible

Note: this still feels sloppy to me.  I will come back and edit it later.


( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 21st, 2009 03:15 am (UTC)
Weeeeee!!! Parade! Also, Washington Mall today = Awesome. *^-^*
Jan. 21st, 2009 07:20 am (UTC)
They were saying on MSNBC that there might have been as many as a million people there.
Jan. 21st, 2009 01:13 pm (UTC)
Correction: 1.8 million people. That's 0.6% of our entire population. In Washington DC. I can't get over it.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )