Lance Armstrong notwithstanding, it is said confession is good for the soul.
I attended a remarkable event last Thursday at the Crest Theatre. Sponsored by the Leadership Institute California, it coupled a screening of Phillip Rodriguez’ documentary, Race 2012—released last October 16 and described as a “PBS special that uses the 2012 and past presidential elections as a lens through which to view America’s changing racial landscape”—with a discussion panel consisting of:
- Former Black Panther and current Sac State Professor and author Robert Stanley Oden;
- La Opinion political writer and author Pilar Marrero;
- Political demographer Paul Mitchell; and
- Policy and political campaign strategist Bill Wong.
Political consultant and Latino Voter expert Mike Madrid moderated. In the context of Barack Obama’s election and re-election victories, the center of gravity was America’s emerging polyracial majority—already a reality in California, in simple numbers, with Latinos poised to take the lead—and its implications for future elections and, presumably, governmental policies. Latinos are not expected to surpass Whites in whole numbers nationally until near mid-century.
As I listened to the questions and observations, one word kept reappearing in my mind, like a flashing, TV-studio “Applause!” sign: Polarization. The scholars and public figures featured in the film quickly established and returned to a theme of insularity, in that the growth, characteristics, diversity, and economic participation of non-White Americans are secondary—perhaps even incidental—to their individual or collective weight in determining whether the declining White electoral majority’s power to govern is preserved or transferred every two to four years. Mitchell noted that the largest share of the 2012 electorate belonged to Democratic—read, “mostly White”—women. Their real and persistent concerns as subcultures take second place to being sliced, diced, and seduced (or frightened) into delivering electoral votes in seven to twelve states in federal elections, with variations on that procedure in state and local contests where their numbers are meaningful enough.
We are acknowledged, and we hear we are appreciated on occasion—but are we heard?
Another gray head alluded to that electoral segment whose beliefs drive their desire to resist reflexively changes that look more and more like they’re not only reasonable, but necessary and inevitable. Marrero observed that younger voters of color don’t see that as “their fight.” At that moment, it occurred to me that Dr. Oden, a handful of others, and I were the only ones in the room with a personal connection to last century’s decade of racial and broader social upheaval before this one’s. There are striking parallels: interminable war abroad, social and economic inequality at home, and kids of all colors and stations in the streets, calling their elders’ attention to those issues. What’s different? Today, there is no prophet, grounded in moral authority but unshackled by the incidents of power, calmly and resolutely insisting on replacing centuries of transgression with justice, equality, and peace. Then, he and those he inspired drove two Presidents—including a Southerner with the means to extract real change—to embrace vesting the progeny of slaves with full citizenship, the franchise, and a path out of destitution, a century after the Emancipation Proclamation and adoption of the 13th Amendment supposedly settled those issues. There were horrible consequences, of course. The young President who inspired two generations to see nobility and purpose in governing was murdered, as was his younger brother, who took up his torch five years later. The older, more seasoned leader, who began to unburden us from our historical shame with strokes of his pen, was defeated by a war he lacked the experience to manage. An assassin stilled the prophet’s voice and our cities burned. Enter Richard Nixon, whose promises of “law and order” and a swift end to the war inaugurated an age of retrenchment and denial. I was 20 and at that moment ineligible to vote for Hubert Humphrey.
I wrote again last week how Dr. King’s words and deeds, and those who stood against him, affected and instructed me as an adolescent. Barack Hussein Obama was two years and three weeks old when “I have a dream today” rolled like thunder around the Reflecting Pool. The opportunity and privilege of college and law school educations threw me into the social and political cauldron that was 1966-73. There, freedom of inquiry in a protected environment allowed me to confront and assess events that were startling our entire culture awake—with and without benefit of recreational pharmaceuticals. (In his Sac State biography, Dr. Oden lists himself as a co-author of “A Comparison of the Political Thought of Huey P. Newton and Osama Bin Ladin (2007).” As a freshman in 1966, I got an “A” on a poli-sci paper comparing the rhetoric of Newton with Tom Paine’s.) Truth bolted from the shadows into the glare of reality, ubiquitous and inescapable. Then, as now, the choice was to embrace or deny, but it was impossible not to wrestle with it.
Today, we are a Nation of enclaves, each clothed in its own armor of facts and orthodoxy on what’s real. When enclaves collide, an increasingly oligopolistic commercial media covers the crash, not the cause, driven more naturally by the interests of investors than citizens. Now that our national elections have become a profit center for them, it is not only possible to avoid reality but to deny it entirely. How else to explain, upon waking the morning after a President spoke eloquently to both our challenges we face and the promise we can bring, that NPR found it necessary to point out that, among many of our fellow citizens—
- The fundamentals of scientific inquiry and proof;
- The fact that we’ve long since passed the acknowledged tipping point of 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; and
- His very qualifications to hold the office
—are “debatable?” Using Facebook to reconnect with people I grew up with has demonstrated to me that it’s easier—maybe even necessary, just to maintain—to avoid inconvenient truths if you’ve never been challenged to study, work, or socialize with anyone other than those who are most like you in origin, heritage, appearance, and belief. How else to explain Mitt Romney and the “other” 47%? For some in our cohort, the Internet is not a frontier, it’s a plantation.
White kids today, particularly Generation Y and the Millenials, have a better if tenuous grip on things. Unless home-schooled or closeted in class or sectarian-segregated academies, they’ve grown up both in social diversity and confronting the realities of war and economic inequality. (“Occupy” movement, anyone?) They’re the infantry (pun intended) enlisted by Obama for America to deliver two elections, and it was life-affirming to work alongside them toward those goals. Meanwhile, we ignorant, fearful Boomers and those just behind us retain enough electoral power to throw sand in the wheels of progress. Must America wait decades until we’re dead or of insufficient numbers to get on with it, when collectively we may not be able to afford to?
That’s the problem, as I see it. The solution? I propose a broad, independent inquiry into racism in America—its roots, its status, and its legacy. I’m not just talking about Black-on-White, either; an honest examination of our history will tell us we have a lot to apologize for, to most people of color who’ve shown up here. The goals? Reconciliation—and reparations, if appropriate.
Next: Findings and techniques.