Some Thoughts on Race

Continuing my series "Some Thoughts On..." I've been mulling over the topic of race relations in America these days. It's in the news lately, mostly due to the Presidential campaign, but I've also been reading Charles Lane's excellent new book, The Day Freedom Died, about the Colfax massacre that occurred in central Louisiana in 1873. Both of these incidents, 135 years apart, got me thinking about just what has changed, and what has not, in our attitudes towards one another.

First let me say a few words about the Obama speech. If I had any lingering doubts before about voting for this man they are now gone. Yes, it is true that his economic plan is shaky (at best). It's true that on a lot of issues, he and Hillary have similar blueprints. And yes, for the one thousandth time, he's inexperienced by Washington standards.

But my god, what a speech. And he wrote it himself, people. Let me say that again. He wrote it himself. Despite any and all criticisms of what he would or would not do as President, that speech showed that he has a grasp of the racial situation in America today FAR and away better than any candidate in recent memory. This, coupled with the fact that he has the ability to bring these issues to the table and actually discuss them intelligently with white and African Americans is enough to make me stand up and cheer for the man.

The Day Freedom Died, on the other hand, is making me sad beyond measure, and not only because it discusses a dismal and sickening event in American history. It's an excellent book, full of information I didn't know about my own home state. I was born and raised in Louisiana, near the area where Colfax is located, and as I read this book I am thinking, how far have we really come since then? The vast majority of white people here still have the very same attitudes that allowed this to happen in the first place. I grew up hearing my elders, my older neighbors, and my friends make comments about the "lazy niggers" who do nothing but live off welfare and commit crimes. It hurts me to admit these things about the people I loved and respected as a child, but it's the truth. There is still a strong belief in old stereotypes, with little regard or interest in the actual history of what went on in our own cities and towns before, during, and after the Civil War. We aren't taught about things like the Colfax Massacre in school here (which, incidentally, is referred to on an historical marker in the town of Colfax as the "Colfax Riot").

During Katrina I watched with horror from my safe evacuation point as literally thousands of human beings were treated like cattle, abandoned and then herded around like so many livestock. To this day many white people I know can only remember the looters who broke into the stores in New Orleans. I can only say to them, Don't you remember what happened at the Superdome and the Convention Center? They shrug as if it were somehow the victims' fault that they didn't evacuate to Alabama and stay at the Motel Six.

It's a problem so pervasive, so ingrained in the way we think about ourselves and one another that I don't know how to even begin to unravel things. I'm not sure where to look for the starting place for a dialog like this. I'm constantly amazed, even as a 36 year old woman, how many people here are racist, whether overtly or simply through the attitudes engendered of their inheritance of 150 years of resentment.

We have a lot of problems in this country, problems the next President will have to find some kind of way to begin solving. Our economy is tanking. We have little or no standing in the international community. We consume natural resources like there's no tomorrow. And we're fighting a costly and useless war of aggression that was started on false pretenses and continues despite all logic. But we must also deal with our cultural baggage as well. Our nation will suffer until we do, and we'll be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past until we realize that ALL MEN ARE CREATED EQUAL means just what it says. The next President of the United States will have to find a way to do that.

And in my opinion, at least Obama has a shot.

1 Comment:

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