Election 2008 will be history in less than four weeks. I have to admit, I haven’t been buying into the hype this time around. And I don’t yet have a clear vision of who is going to win this thing.
I know who should be winning, given the unprecedentedly dismal performance of the ruling party over the past eight years. If Barack Obama were a white man, or perhaps even a white woman (though not, I think, Hillary Clinton) he would be a shoo-in for the office. Hell, if he were Donald Duck he would probably have a larger lead over McCain than the slim few points he enjoys now (Donald is, um, white...) But the fact is, the American people–so desperately in need of a drastic change in leadership–are having a hard time accepting that it may come in the form of a man who, fifty years ago, wouldn’t have been allowed to ride in the front seats of a city bus.
Nobody wants to talk about that. Nobody wants to admit it. Nobody wants to believe that the ugly demon of racism still sits on the shoulders of a large portion of our population, still whispers that blacks are inferior, blacks are mentally deficient, blacks are somehow not completely human, blacks should go back to Africa where they came from. Blacks are the enemy.
DO NOT MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING THIS STUFF HAS GONE AWAY. It has become politically incorrect to talk about racism. But we have not eradicated it from American society by any means. What we are as a nation, and what we would like to be–what we should be–are in this case two dishearteningly different things.
I am fifty-three years old. In the sixties and seventies, when liberal politics and civil rights were on the march, I grew up in the lily-white suburbs of Chicago. But we were open-minded. We were not prejudiced! We were forbidden to use the "n" word; we were taught that there was "nothing wrong with Negroes." That they were people just like everyone else. But the fact is, I had no contact whatsoever with black people when I was a kid, other than the bag boy at the grocery store, and the occasional sighting of a black woman standing at the bus stop in the evening, waiting to be transported back to the city after spending the day toiling in some white suburbanite’s kitchen.
I did not have a black classmate until 1972. I was in high school. I remember being shocked at the grumblings around the school; being disgusted when a girl in my art class declared that her father was so upset a black family had moved into town, because now the property values were going to go down.
Ten years later, shortly before my husband and I took our own “Oregon Trail” away from the Chicago area in the early 80’s, a black politician by the name of Harold Washington ended up as the Democratic candidate for Mayor of Chicago—when the white primary vote was split between Richie Daley (son of “Boss” Mayor Richard J. Daley, who had died in office in 1976) and incumbent Jane Byrne.
It was 1983, in Chicago, where the Democratic party had enjoyed undisputed reign since the days of Capone and beyond…and the Democratic mayoral candidate barely squeaked to victory against the slogan, chanted by white Republicans and Democrats alike: “Vote Shalom (referring to Washington’s GOP rival, Bernie Upton—a little-known former state legislator who also happened to be Jewish) and Save Your Home.”
Twenty-five years later, in 2008, the Black Congressional Caucus has 41 members. The National Conference of Black Mayors has a membership of over 641 black mayors from across the country. A succession of excellent black public servants has performed brilliantly at the highest levels of our government, including two consecutive black Secretaries of State.
But Richie Daley is Mayor of Chicago.
What does that mean, you ask?
It means that in the twenty years since the Harold Washington debacle, the party faithful of America’s third largest city have not been asked again to cast their votes for an African American for mayor.
It means that a city of almost 3 million people has excused itself from giving the nod to a mayor who would racially represent over a third of its population; in fact, a larger percentage of the population that the long-term, “white/non-hispanic” incumbent. A large northern urban area is still governed by the regime, and arguably, the beliefs, that were in place fifty years ago--when that young black man running for president today would not have been allowed to board a city bus through the front door.
This is by no means an exercise in picking on the City of Chicago. I’ve simply drawn an example from my own experience. I have a hard time believing that Chicago is so unique among major American cities that it’s the only place insidious racism reigns. Has Boston ever had a black mayor? How about Pittsburgh? New York City has had one, but he served only one term and was plagued by accusations of weakness and racial favoritism.
In short, there are a lot of people out there, and not just red-necks, southerners and cowboys, who subscribe to the belief that leaders are, and should be, white. They’ll pay hundreds of bucks to go root for the black athletes on the home team, they don’t think twice about appreciating the performances of Bill Cosby or Denzel Washington, they might even have a black neighbor they wave to on the way out to the car in the morning.
But they expect the face behind the desk at City Hall, or the Oval Office, to look like their own.
I have more to say about this, but I’m going to write another installment…