September 23, 2008 by
Race in the Race
By Patricia Wilson-Smith
It’s been a roller coaster ride. For those of us who have been Obama supporters from Day One, it’s been like being on the world’s largest roller coaster after eating a chili dog from Atlanta’s famed Varsity Restaurant. It’s actually even worse.
First – we endured the looks of confusion on the faces of our friends and family, when we told them we were going to a meeting of Barack Obama volunteers. “Barack what?” was the most frequent response to such a pronouncement. A brief explanation of who Barack Obama was back then, almost always elicited the same response. “Girl, you crazy. This country not gon’ vote fa no black man.”
I can remember it like it was yesterday. Even my 77 year-old mother, turning up her nose at me in disgust over what she perceived as my colossal waste of time – the meetings, the phone calls, the organizing. She accused me of caring more about “that Borock O-bama” than I did her, my house, or my son. Or even my job. And yes, she was sure, with everything in her, that he had no chance of winning the nomination. No chance at all.
But the early supporters endured, all the way through Super Tuesday, when the people of Iowa, most of them white Americans sent a lightning bolt through the country by casting their ballots mostly for the junior Senator from Illinois. The news was a-buzz with the historic nature of what was perceived at the time as a Clinton upset, and everything began to change. Some of my brothers and sisters, my friends and family began to actually ask themselves, “could it really happen?”
But consequently, all manner of new ludicrousness began:
“The Clintons have always been there for black people – what do we know about this dude?”
“He’s not black enough – he don’t care about our issues!”
“A vote for him is a wasted vote!”
“He need to change his name if he wants to even have a chance!”
And my personal favorite…”I can’t vote for that man, they might assassinate him!”
Black people were running into each other emotionally – we didn’t know what to feel or what was coming next. And then the Obama campaign machine proved to us all that not only could he win the primary – he also had a chance – some chance, of winning the election.
How did they do it? In part, by almost completely playing down Senator Obama’s race, and instead opting to highlight his skills as a uniter and change agent. He wowed us all black, white and brown, with his ability to help us see what was possible, and gave us all a reason to feel a hope that was so strong, that by the time the Reverend Jeremiah Wright flap reached it’s climax, we had begun to believe that Senator Obama was uniquely qualified to help begin truly turning the battleship of racial bigotry in this country. It seemed that he might even have had what it took to help the white majority in this country better understand the black condition; why for some, an anger still boils just below the surface, as he did in his now historic speech from Philadelphia. And though it was a rough and rocky road, he made it through and we began to believe even more.
Then, of course, he fought hard and long to make it across the finish line to clinch the nomination. And before I knew it, all the nay-sayers were loudly celebrating, and proclaiming their disbelief over his accomplishment, and daring to believe that this country truly had crossed an important milestone. It was time to look ahead to the General Election, and so many of us had hope in our hearts, and a renewed belief in the progress we’d made as a nation.
More money raised than any campaign in history. A trip abroad that proved he is loved and admired by citizens of other nations in a way that is unprecedented in American politics. And an acceptance speech, given in Denver’s Invesco Field, to over 84,000 supporters, all crowning achievements for a campaign that has been almost flawlessly executed, and that also by the way, stopped one of the most prolific political machines of our time dead in it’s tracks.
And now that we are several weeks into the General Election, a daunting question is again beginning to take center stage amongst the pundits and nightly news media. A question that given the dire nature of our economy, the general distaste for the human and monetary costs of the war in Iraq, the record number of foreclosures, and the general and overriding belief that the nation is heading in the wrong direction, begs for an answer – is race the reason why Senator Obama is not at least 20 points ahead of John McCain in the polls?
I was at Invesco field when Senator Obama gave what was by all accounts an incredible speech. On the way out, as I followed the throng of people exiting the arena, I over heard a conversation between two white gentleman, who, after being suitably impressed by his speech and the flawless execution of the whole night, wondered aloud about the same thing:
“Man, that speech was amazing. That crowd was amazing. I don’t understand why we’re not up by 20 or 30 points in the polls”, said the first gentleman.
“It’s his race, pure and simple”, said the second. “It’s hard to believe, but there are still a lot of people out there that just won’t vote for a black man.”
I could feel tears well up in my eyes. Because it dawned on me at that moment that despite the crowds, despite the miraculous fund-raising, the inspirational and sometimes brilliantly instructional speeches – it might still in the end, come down to how many people in this country can set aside their irrational prejudices in order to do what’s best for the nation. There are no two ways about it – the shockingly low difference in the candidates’ poll numbers in my opinion, bears this out.
It reminds me of one of the most amazing, and yet most chilling movies I’ve ever seen – “A Time To Kill”. In it, Samuel L. Jackson, the father of a young girl, has to stand trial for murdering two white men who had brutally beat and raped his daughter, and left her for dead at the bottom of a lake. By some miracle, the girl was found and saved, but her womb had been destoryed, and she bore outward physical scars, and internal scars that would never go away.
Despite the brutal nature of the crime, Jackson’s character was treated like a vigilante, an angry black man bent on exacting justice against the perpetrators of the horrible crime against his daughter; the white inhabitants of the small town gave hardly a thought to what the little girl had gone through, and wanted Samuel L. to fry for murdering the men who were clearly guilty, and clearly unrepetent. The anguish he must have felt at the thought of what was done to his daughter, the insanity it must have induced never entered most of the town’s minds. Enter Matthew McConaughey.
Matthew McConaughey was Samuel L’s defense attorney. Faced with a jury of all whites, from a southern town where racial disharmony was the norm, and working for a defendant who had in fact murdered the two men in question, the odds were against he and Samuel L. And it looked like it was all but over until he did something extraordinary.
If you saw the movie, you know what he did. He stepped up before the jury, and asked them to use their imaginations to invision the little black girl, as he told the anguished story of what she had endured at the hands of the perpetrators. He described every blow, every atrocity in graphic enough detail to paint a vivid, disturbing picture. And at the end of it all, he asked the jury to picture it, really picture it all – and then imagine that the girl was white.
I’m overcome by the need to do the same thing to the American people. I want to get a bull horn that will reach the rural areas of Pennsylvania, and Ohio, and the farms of Missouri. I want to implore them to imagine a man, who was a genius student, a graduate of Columbia University, who would go on to Harvard, graduate at the top of his class, become the president of the Harvard Law Review. Imagine that that man went on to become a constitutional scholar, and lecturer, and that rather than take the lucrative road to wealth and financial comfort for his family, chose instead to give himself over to a life of service as first an Illinois State Senator, and then a United States Senator. Imagine that this man, through his unique vision for the country, had inspired so many people, that he was literally called to service, and drafted to run for President of the United States. I want ALL of white America to picture it, really picture it all.
And then imagine that he’s black.