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A Sixty-Seven Year Old White Man’s Thoughts About Racism, on Obama’s Second Inauguration

obamaFriends dropped by my house today to watch President Obama’s second inauguration.  America has changed so much, to have elected a person of color for a second term to the highest office of the land!  The camera panned the crowd, showing blacks, whites, Asians, Hispanics.  We rejoiced.  This is the America we cherish, a land striving to embody its ideals of liberty and justice for all.

When I was fighting in Vietnam in 1970, living with South Vietnamese, and abiding G.I.’s talk of slopes and gooks, I happened to be standing near a helicopter one day which had just carried in the mail.  An African American G.I. went for something in the chopper, and one of my Vietnamese colleagues passed by him, and then, as he got close to me, he winked.  I knew at once what the wink meant.  It meant:  See that detestable scum.  He is like the dark skinned Cambodians whom we abhor.  You and I are better than he is, right?!  I wanted to puke, for I realized at once that racism is world wide.  It isn’t just a white man’s disease.  Once the racism virus is contracted, usually from childhood exposure, it remains on board.  A watch of the conscience must be posted to keep it quarantined, lest it break out and take one over.

When my wife and I moved to Miami in 1981 the Mariel boatlift had just happened.  Within two weeks the population of Spanish speaking children in the public schools increased by a third.  My son, just beginning first grade, was one of three children in a class of thirty who spoke English.  The city was reeling from a demographic sea change.  I remember a bumper sticker that read, “Will the last American out of Miami please bring the flag.”  Whites were leaving because refugees and immigrants were coming in such large numbers. Miami didn’t feel anymore like the home they had known for years.   They just couldn’t abide the change which was happening so quickly.

My wife and I moved to Miami in part because of its diversity.  We welcomed an opportunity to work where one could hear a half dozen languages spoken any day.  We felt privileged to live in such a vibrant, pioneering place, for the demographic changes that were transforming Miami were predicted to transform the whole country by 2050, when Caucasians would be a minority.

In fact, this shift has occurred much faster than expected.  USA Today recently published an analysis that indicates the tipping point has already been reached:  Fifty-five percent of Americans now live in areas where, if two persons are chosen at random, they are likely to come from different racial-ethnic groups.

Some Americans regard this change as threatening.  I hang around several online veterans’ groups, and I read there a lot of grousing about America going to the dogs, and posts opposing gun control, because “without guns to protect ourselves, the government may take us over.”  It is not surprising to me that such alarmist talk surges at the time of the re-election of America’s first black president.  I am not a sociologist.   I don’t know how to conduct scientific surveys, but if I did, I’d test the hypothesis that much of the present malaise about America’s future is closely correlated to whites feeling like that guy who posted the bumper sticker thirty-two years ago.

It is not politically correct these days to speak about racism.  It is a disease which many Americans believe has been subdued.  How could we be racist, if we now have a black president?!  Well, alas, the virus is still there, lurking within, and unless we acknowledge that it is still on board, it may break out of quarantine.  I have read in the groups I mentioned: “The South shall rise again.!”  My, what awful freight that phrase conveys!  Was our Civil War for naught?  Are we really still in the same frame of mind?

— TCDavis

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  1. J G Broadfield J G Broadfield

    TC, Thanks so much!! and I hope you saw Bill Moyers and Company this past week, which shared poet Martin Espada and his poem from the first inauguration inspired by the tomb of Frederick Douglas… He got at this issue in the conversation with Bill despite Bill’s prodding about ‘disappointment with the president’. Espada kept affirming strongly that while in politics there may be disappointment about some, the disappointment was not all the President’s making. And simply the fact that we had turned this corner in our country, and he had named a Puerto Rican to the Supreme Court when the country NEVER talks about Puerto Rico, was major.

    Your words echo my life long yearning and focus – to keep the issue of race in front of us so it cannot meld into a so-called color blind world that is really a white world encroaching on everyone.

    Thanks again! Joan Gunn Broadfield, Chester PA

    • Thank you for your comment, Joan Gunn Broadfield. I did not see the Bill Moyers show, but will look for it on the internet.

  2. Rekha Doraiswamy Rekha Doraiswamy

    Thank you for a wonderful reflection on such a historic day. I hope a lot of people read this.
    Rekha Doraiswamy,
    Kennett Square, PA

    • Thanks for keeping in touch Rekha, and for your support on this issue. When I speak to African Americans privately they strongly agree that there is much resistance to Obama spurred by racism. However, one rarely hears African Americans speaking this concern publically. I think that they don’t want to make more problems for Obama, and Lord knows he has plenty on his plate!

  3. John L. Allen, Jr. John L. Allen, Jr.

    Thank you much Tom; I share your fears and concerns. Racism is a horrid disease of the mind and soul.I keep thinking about the Broadway shows “Showboat” and “South Pacific” and their messages – especially the song from “South Pacific”, “You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught” (to hate those your your parents hate….).

    I was so lucky that, in spite of my father with only a 5 th grade education, I was taught us NOT to hate people of color, Not to hate Jews, Not to hate those different from us. It was very unusual in the south and in a cotton mill village! From my earliest memories, I hear his voice saying. “Get an education, it will free you in a way that I am not free.”I have been very blessed because of him and his openness to all people as God’s children.
    John Allen

    • Thanks so much, John, for your personal response. You were very lucky to have a father like that. In my home there was what a Jamaican friend of mine finally gave me a label for: “velvet racism.” That’s racism so subtle it’s barely discernable. When I became aware of this velvet racism in my early upbringing, I was able to remember incidents connected to it. But as a child, when I didn’t yet have the maturity to see my parent’s shortcomings, I couldn’t see clearly what was going on. It was Sunday school that eventually helped me see clearly. As a wee child I learned the song: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world. Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” Since my parents had taken me to Sunday school, I assumed they wanted me to hear that song, and take it to heart. And I did. The Gospel is subversive : )

  4. Imam Al Hajj Umar Khalif Hassan EL Imam Al Hajj Umar Khalif Hassan EL

    Peace be unto You! Thanks Tom for bringing this truth to the fore front.May G’d continue to you and yours and My Allah (G’d) continue to Bless OUR country the USA. Peace

    • Thanks, Umar, and thanks for your continuing interfaith work in our city!

  5. Barry Zalph Barry Zalph

    When I had an African American roommate in 1970 and nobody bothered commenting on it, I thought that our culture had eradicated racism. Yes, I was very young and naive. Nonetheless, it took me well into the 1980s to grasp how deeply rooted racism remained. Now, I imagine that perhaps it’s time for us to stop talking about race. Race is, after all, a social construct. It has no inherent meaning or even clear definition. Talking about it merely invites people to dig our heels into our existing, all-too-static world views. Buckminster Fuller wrote, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” I propose two practices with which to start. First, let’s stop talking about people’s characteristics (race, gender, ethnicity, social class…) and focus on behavior. We all know that behavior can change and that environment influences behavior. We never really know who a person _is_, so let’s stop using identity-focused language that reinforces that fallacy. Second, let’s address directly the sources of fear and insecurity that drive people (us!) to seek scapegoats. Let’s help one another protect the things that we value. That starts with asking one another what we value, and listening intently and respectfully.

    • Barry, what a helpful, insightful comment! Thanks so much for following the blog and leaving your comment. You may have noticed in a follow-up post that there will be an April event in Wilmington to take a “Stand Against Racism.” I’m going to email your comment to the leaders of that event because it may help them to plan the content.

  6. Lorie Tudor Lorie Tudor

    as always, intelligent and thoughtful

  7. Vernon Neece Vernon Neece

    Very insightful as usual, Tom. Anyone who claims we live in a post-racial society must have acute rectal-cranial inversion.

    I knew a southern guy in college who totally shocked me when he said he just as soon shoot a n-word as look at him & this was at a Christian college. During my time in the Army I came to realize that some of the black guys I served with distrusted me just because I was white. I was the Company Clerk and tried to treat everybody with respect, dignity & kindness.

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