Looking Past Obama: For Millions, it Still Sucks to be Black in America

Maui Time | June 12, 2008
As an African-American, Ward Connerly uses his skin color to draw attention to his otherwise unremarkable politics: he's a right-wing Republican who hates affirmative action. Now this ideological freak is using Barack Obama's racial heritage (half of it, anyway) to argue that racism is all in the past.

"The entire argument for race preferences is that society is institutionally racist and institutionally sexist, and you need affirmative action to level the playing field," Connerly told The New York Times after Obama claimed the Democratic nomination. "The historic success of Senator Obama, as well as Senator Clinton, dismantles that argument."

Connerly said he "choked up" at the sight of Obama's victory. "He did it by his own achievement. Nobody gave it to him." Well, sure. Except for a little help from Chicago's Daley political machine (a.k.a. white guys). Obama may also have benefited from a race-based preference when his application arrived at Columbia College. (Shout-out to my former colleagues at Columbia's office of admissions and financial aid: free beers for a week for an hour in the archives.)

Behold the politics of singularity. If one (half-)black guy can make it, anyone can. Those who fail have no one to blame but their own lazy, excuse-making selves.

Seven years ago, conservatives like Connerly were pointing to George W. Bush's cabinet appointments, 50 percent of which went to women or people of color, as proof that minorities no longer had anything to complain about. "If you look at my administration, it's diverse, and I'm proud of that," Bush said of Colin Powell and Condi Rice, charter members of African-Americans Against Blacks. Minorities may well have followed the right's edict to quit whining and start working. But the rise of Alberto Gonzales to attorney general, for example, only helped one Latino: himself.

Even within the White House, tokenism has limits. "The Bush Administration," found a Newsday study of 2,800 political appointees, "is not nearly as diverse as it appears ... Blacks held 7 percent of administration jobs under Bush, less than half of the 16 percent they held under Clinton ... Women won 36 percent of Bush's appointments, noticeably fewer than the 44 percent of Clinton's."

Reflexive churlishness aside, after watching my fellow citizens passively accept torture, concentration camps, domestic surveillance, government kidnappings, two useless wars and two stolen elections, Obamamania is fun. It's refreshing to be proud of my fellow Americans. Those who vote in Democratic primaries, anyway.

So the Democratic Party isn't racist. What remains to be seen is whether America is. Will general election voters support a thoughtful, vigorous and handsome African-American running against a rigid, aging militarist pushing the policies of the most unpopular president in history?

To prevail in November, Obama must win the votes of millions of whites who supported George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004. Though not necessarily racist themselves, these swing voters were certainly willing to tolerate Bush's racism. Bush famously beat McCain in the 2000 Republican primaries by waging a whispering campaign about McCain's "black" daughter by a prostitute (actually, she was born in Bangladesh and was adopted). He also spoke at Bob Jones University. "Bob Jones University is opposed to intermarriage of the races because it breaks down the barriers God has established," BJU administrators wrote to students in 1998 -- a ban that remained in force when Bush went there.

McCain is the lamest GOP candidate since Bob Dole, running in the least propitious year for Republicans since 1974. If a black guy can win, this is the year.

To be sure, an Obama victory couldn't have happened in 1964, when I was one year old, or even 1980, when I was 17. (Reagan won that year by winking at the KKK and decrying black "welfare queens.") Obama's inauguration would mark America's long, but undeniable progress since LBJ signed the Voting Rights Act. A biracial president with a Muslim parent would broadcast to the world that America's post-9/11 madness is finally winding down. But it would hardly mean that minorities, or women for that matter, had achieved equality.

Disparities in healthcare highlight some of the many inequities in an American economy suffering from staggering disparity of wealth.

Just last week a Dartmouth study showed that African-Americans with diabetes are five times more likely than whites to lose a limb to amputation. Blue Cross and Blue Shield released another survey the same day, this one showing that even African-American women who have medical insurance stand less of a chance of surviving breast cancer than whites. "The death rate for black women from breast cancer was the same up through 1981," said Dr. Otis Brawley of the American Cancer Society and a professor at Emory University. "Every year, the death rate has gotten more divergent. The difference for black women and white women in 2005 was greater than it was in 1995, and it is greater in '95 than it was in 1985."

Everywhere you look, it sucks to be black in America. Swimming classes cost money. African-Americans don't make as much money as whites. So they don't sign up their kids at the same rate as whites. It might not sound like a big deal -- until you learn that, according to the Centers for Disease Control, black children between the ages of five and 14 drown at two and half times the rate of white kids.

Good for Barack Obama. But our national obsession with the triumph of the individual (while ignoring disasters suffered by millions) reminds me of the old joke about the man in the car driving past a hitchhiker at 60 mph. Their average speed is 30. But they're each enjoying a different experience.

Ted Rall is the author of the book "Silk Road to Ruin: Is Central Asia the New Middle East?," an in-depth prose and graphic novel analysis of America's next big foreign policy challenge.

Maui Time

Maui Time Weekly provides insightful analysis and in depth reporting. We believe some issues are so important they require thoughtful consideration. We are not a “paper of record”—a daily journal of government meetings, ribbon-cuttings and corporate announcements. We decide what’s...
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