Saturday, September 5, 2009

Audacity of Hope - Chapter 7 Race

Unlike many of the other chapters in the book, then Senator Obama allows us to see some of his real core values in this chapter. This should come as no surprise. If anything, Barack Obama is defined by race. As a biracial man with an immigrant father, he seems superbly qualified to comment on the race and immigration issues in America. And while I disagree with many of his beliefs, I believe he is sincere in his desire to promote a more equal America. And unlike his presidential campaign he pretty much lays out how he would like to do this in this chapter. You have to read between the lines to get at it, but it is all there.

First of all he believes that race relations are getting better in America. He believes that great strides have been made with black Americans breaking through the glass ceiling and in many cases becoming very wealthy. He believes that better is not good enough, due to the many poor blacks and Latinos still struggling.

Right off the bat I find some ideas that I would like to argue with him on. He like many African Americans believes that there is still a dominant white culture in America. Due to this, to use a word George Bush coined, the deciders compare people against this culture and make hiring and promoting decisions based on it. Blacks, Mr. Obama believes, don't fare well when this happens. In reality, there is not a dominant white culture. There is a dominant culture that is an average of all of us. It is created by our history, TV culture, the English we speak at home, our manners, mores and Judeo-Christian traditions. In this culture if you speak back woods hick, or Ebonics, you are at a disadvantage. If you wear baggy pants or overalls, you'll be passed over by the guy in a suit. That said, I don't know what it would be like to be pulled over for driving while black. I am sure it exists, and I condemn it.

Obama does seem to be distancing himself from the old school black psychology of,

“If I were white I'd be further along”.

He stresses that the new generation of blacks don't want to have the best black firm, they want the top firm period. But every time I think he is different from Jessie Jackson and Al Sharpton, he regresses. For example, he singles out black parents who worked all their lives in jobs that were too small for them, without complaining, scrimping and saving to buy a small home. Parents who did without so that there kids could do better. He says this as if it was unique to minority families. The thing is, just like many other Americans of all colors, my mother did this for me too.

He believes that there is a wage equality gap between blacks and Latinos, and their white counterparts. In fact the statistics back him up on this. And he is committed to taking action. But what role should the government play?

A word of caution President Obama. Sometimes when you do social engineering experiments, they have unintended consequences. Like when we decided it would help close the gap if we relaxed our lending rules to allow people who could not afford to pay a mortgage to get a loan any way. That did not work out very well.

Although he makes a half hearted statement that he is for affirmative action, I think in his heart he does not believe in it. He knows how unpopular it would be for him in the African American community and his liberal base, to come out against it. So he says, "I'm for it, but I understand the argument against it. He then goes on to say that it is counter productive for the government to target races and try to help one race over the other. Instead he believes in universal programs like improving education and health care. Anything that helps the poor and middle class will also help blacks and Latinos.

His views on immigration and illegal immigrants are pretty main stream. He does not feel our culture should have to adapt to the immigrants rather than them having to adapt to us. He is angry when illegal Mexicans are waving their flag in our country to protest our immigration policy.

"American citizenship is a privilege not a right." he says.

His main contribution to the immigration legislation battle was to include a bill making it tougher for employers to hire illegal immigrants. He was for the more liberal compromise legislation that allowed amnesty for people already here after a certain period of time.

Since this book was written of course Senator Obama has become President Obama. Had we all paid attention to this chapter, somebody may have predicted what happened the other day with

Cambridge police Sergeant James Crowley, and Harvard Professor Henry Lewis Gates Jr. As anyone watching the news knows, a neighbor called the cops when Professor Lewis was breaking into his own house. The police asked for identification, and an indigent Lewis began shouting at the officer. He was arrested. Without knowing all the facts the president weighed in that it was a stupid decision. Later he had to patch things up by having them both to the White House for a beer.

But this shows a tendency in President Obama to have a quick trigger finger when it comes to race. This racial chip on the shoulder tendency appeared during the campaign when Michelle Obama said,

"For the first time in my adult life I am proud of my country."

I think President Obama will look for another more clear-cut racial profiling example and make a big deal of it again. We'll all have another country wide conversation about it. People will get excited and say things they regret. After all the dust has settled however, it is a conversation we need to have. We are like a big dysfunctional family in some ways. Let's hope president Obama can use his unusual background to bring us a little further toward racial harmony.

Or maybe we just need to wait until the next generation comes of age. They don't seem to have any issues with all this.

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