Race in America panel: caution, anger, pain, and hope

Posted on August 25, 2008

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Today’s Denver Post/Politico Convention Conversation between House Majority Whip James Clyburn, former Virginia governor Douglas Wilder, Illinois Representative Jesse Jackson Jr., media commentator Tavis Smiley, and author Dr. Cornel West can be summed up in four words: caution, hope, anger, and pain.

Caution
Is the country ready for a black president? Yes, according to every member of the panel. But blacks in particular and America in general have to be cautious. Barak Obama being smeared by friends and enemies alike. Expectations for Obama’s presidency been elevated to such a level that, in the words of Smiley, “Jesus Christ himself” couldn’t meet them. And the election of a black man born of privilege who has chosen to identify with the trials and tribulations of blacks will not end the era of “black politics”. West and Smiley both pointed out – repeatedly – that an Obama presidency gets black communities one step closer to an equitable America. But only one step. Thus caution by blacks and all opponents of racial inequality is warranted.

But there was another kind of caution being espoused by Jackson, a type of caution for the panelists and others in their position: the world is watching, and all the careful, articulate language in the world might not be enough to undo the damage done by the rhetoric of anger.

Anger
And both West and Smiley in particular are very angry. Given the history of blacks in the United States, they have a right to be. There’s no doubt that they’ll continue being angry after the election whomever wins. And that’s a good thing, because when West talks of “niggerizing” brown people throughout the United States, or calls Jim Crow laws “American terrorism”, or when Smiley talks about how the so-called “Bradley effect” has resulted in good black candidates losing their elections, the anger in their voices lends strength to their convictions. You know that, come Hell or high water, these men will fight on until they win or die trying.

We cannot ignore them, or allow others to ignore their ire however they might try, because the anger of West, Smiley, and millions of others like them is based in a history of slavery, racism, and segregation that has left too many blacks with anger as the only outlet for their anguish.

Pain
Jackson said it twice during the panel, and it deserves to be repeated again – let no one misunderstand the panelists’ anger for hatred of whites, but rather as an outlet for generations of pain – Jim Crow, Jena, Louisiana, Hurricane Katrina, Jackie Robinson facing jeering fans.

Hope
Obama’s stock in trade has, until recently, been hope. But Jackson pointed out that Obama can run his campaign focused on hope and winning the next state instead of winning his delegates because of the black candidates who went before him. Obama, like all of us, stands upon the shoulders of those who came before – Rev. Jesse Jackson, Ref. Al Sharpton, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., and countless others including at least two of the panel members (Wilder and Clyborn). Wilder suggested that an Obama presidency could ultimately create a new era of politics not just for blacks, but for America as well. And Jackson pointed out that the evolution of the Democratic party – the party that once supported segregation and slavery – shows that America is a place where “we can create the America we ought to be.”

Environmentalists, LGBT activists, blacks, latinos and latinas, and other progressive activists have pinned their hopes to Barak Obama, and he may yet deliver upon those hopes. I certainly hope so. But in the words of Dr. West, Obama represents “the last, best hope for America – at the moment.”

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