Saturday, February 6, 2010

An Open Letter To The Racists

It's Black History Month, so this seems like a good time to bring this up. In case you haven't noticed, we have a bit of a race problem in this country. True, we have shown enough progress in race relations to elect a non-white President, in this case black. Good for us.

The problem is that there are people who would not say 'good for us'. Most people who are not these people can take a fairly educated stab at who they are. They're in all likelihood the ones screaming that Barack Obama is Muslim or born in Kenya or Indonesia and thus ineligible to be President, and wanting to 'take our country back'. Sometimes all at the same time.

And the thing is, this isn't just some wild-eyed play-the-race-card conspiracy theory. People have admitted it openly. It hasn't been polled for a year, only as recently as the second half of December 2008 and the first few days of 2009 by ABC News- after Obama's election but before his inauguration- but one would be a fool to think racism has gone completely away since then. And in that poll, 35% of all respondents, and more specifically 34% of white respondents, answered yes to the question "If you honestly assessed yourself, would you say that you have at least some feelings of racial prejudice?"

If I asked you if you were one of these people, you would almost assuredly tell me no, whether you actually are or not. And I will not call any one person a racist in this space. But, just in case one happens to be out there listening, listen carefully.

A black man has been elected President. A black man is serving as President. It's too late to prevent it. You are not Doctor Who, and you cannot change history. What is done is done. Some little reptilian corner of your mind might be driving you to desperately search for some way you can turn back the clock and stop it from happening, but no matter how loud you scream, no matter how much you threaten, no matter how much legislation you pass or prevent from passing, even if you manage to gain sufficient power to strike Obama's name from the rolls and act as if he was never really President, and annul every bill he ever signed into law, nothing you can ever do will change the fact that, from the period spanning January 20, 2009 to today, a black man sat in the Oval Office. That fact will always be true, from now until time immemorial. Even if he were to suffer a heart attack and die tomorrow, he will have served longer than at least one other President.

It's bigger than Obama now. The larger process of acceptance has started, however long it will ultimately take. The first black anything always has to deal with people like you. It doesn't matter what, really. Take baseball. Jackie Robinson was the first player to break the color barrier, and everyone knows what he had to deal with. That was the beginning. Larry Doby, the second black player, didn't have it easy either, coming in only three months after Robinson, and since he wasn't the first, he didn't have the support structure Robinson did.

But things slowly got better. By the time Pumpsie Green integrated the Red Sox 12 years after Robinson, the pressure was less on Green for being black, then it was on the Red Sox for not integrating sooner. Green wasn't a new thing anymore. The grief he got was largely due to the fact that he simply wasn't all that much of a ballplayer; his best year was 1961, in which he hit .260 with 4 home runs and 27 RBI, all career highs. Robinson and Doby never would have been able to get away with those numbers, especially not as career highs.

By the time the Pittsburgh Pirates fielded the first all-black starting lineup in 1971, black ballplayers were so accepted that not even the players noticed until the 2nd inning. (The Pirates won that day, beating the Phillies 10-7.)

The same thing will happen with Obama. Maybe not with you. In fact, almost definitely not with you. But look at those younger than you. Everyone in America born after 12 noon on January 20, 2009 will never know a world in which there was never a black President. They will go to school, open their history textbooks, and when they see that gallery of headshots of all the Presidents in order, from Washington to Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe and on down the line, somewhere in there is going to be Barack Obama. Not a blank space. Not "Barry Soetoro". Barack Obama, with no further context of how he got there or what he dealt with after his election. It will not be a strange thing to them. Maybe a little because for a time he will be the only one there, but he will be there nonetheless. He will be alongside Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln and the Roosevelts and Kennedy and, yes, even Reagan, for as long as the nation endures. The fact that a black man might be President in the future will not shake them as it shakes you. And after they reach voting age, if another qualified candidate comes along who happens to be black, they will not think twice about electing that candidate.

After all, it's happened before, hasn't it?

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