Friday, April 04, 2008

1968 and 2008

Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. was shot and killed forty years ago. The dynamics of racial politics were locked in place in 1968, and have shifted only marginally since then. That year Richard Nixon redrew the electoral map with his southern strategy, and Dixie has been solid Republican territory for the GOP ever since.
The political map reflects the deeper psychic landscape that emerged in 1968. This landscape of mistrust and resentment between blacks and whites may have been worn down over the last forty year, but its principle features are still recognizable.
Barack Obama's candidacy has brought some of these resentments to the surface. He himself raised them in his speech on March 18, not to inflame or dismiss, but to examine closely and offer understanding. Notably, Obama voiced an appreciation of white resentments:
In fact, a similar anger exists within segments of the white community. Most working- and middle-class white Americans don't feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience - as far as they're concerned, no one's handed them anything, they've built it from scratch. They've worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense. So when they are told to bus their children to a school across town; when they hear that an African American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed; when they're told that their fears about crime in urban neighborhoods are somehow prejudiced, resentment builds over time.
Like the anger within the black community, these resentments aren't always expressed in polite company. But they have helped shape the political landscape for at least a generation. Anger over welfare and affirmative action helped forge the Reagan Coalition. Politicians routinely exploited fears of crime for their own electoral ends. Talk show hosts and conservative commentators built entire careers unmasking bogus claims of racism while dismissing legitimate discussions of racial injustice and inequality as mere political correctness or reverse racism.
Will Obama's speech lead to a new national conversation on race? Yes, if we are willing to do the hard work of allowing our thinking to change. While the temperature of race relations has come down from the fever of 1968, our national attitudes on race still remain fixed in place.
But even the phrase "race relations" offers a clue as to how our thinking may be changing; the phrase recalls a time when contact between blacks and whites was a matter shaped by demonstrations, riots, speeches, court cases, and legislation. For most Americans, dealing with people of other racial backgrounds is a daily occurrence.
Unfortunately, this new conversation is being crowded out by media voices more interested in stoking controversy than building understanding. Your average cable news channel is likely to spend more airtime reviewing the words of Rev. Wright than of Obama himself.
Rehashing old resentments is easy. Rethinking old attitudes is hard. I don't know what a new conversation about race in America might look like, for the simple reason we haven't had it yet. But I can hope and pray that forty years on, we can leave behind the shackles of past thinking and be about the work of living together in the 21st century.
The turmoil of that year need not shape our destiny for all time. Perhaps now we can look back and see the maelstrom of 1968 receding in our rear view mirror, and turn our attention to the road before us.

2 Comments:

Anonymous Martha said...

Thank you for this very thoughtful post. I printed out the text of Obama's race speech and am blown away by the insight and compassion he has for all Americans. I found your blog because I was googling an MLK quote I heard Obama use at his first rally here in Los Angeles, back in Feb 2007: "The arc of the moral universe may be long, but it bends toward justice...." You quoted from that speech on MLK Day. Obama made that message even stronger, because he said at the rally, "It always bends toward justice IF we all reach up and push." I am so full of hope for a new era in America, because Obama brings out our best selves. I even drive more patiently and considerately now because I have Obama bumper stickers on my car!

1:06 PM, April 04, 2008  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thank you as well, Tom. You have chosen, I think, the most eloquent segment of a most eloquent speech, put into the context of the comprehensive legacy of MLK,Jr. Obama has demonstrated himself capable of placing himself into anyman's shoes, and equally important, articulating the feelings and dilemmas, a rare quality indeed. This nation needs him greatly, right now!

Perry Hood

4:07 PM, April 04, 2008  

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