Wednesday, January 7, 2009

A Cynical Act

The anticipation of the swearing in of America's first African-American president, should not let us off the hook.

Our country still needs to engage in a very important conversation regarding the issue of race.

These conversations can be painful. One of my mentors, who happens to be Mexican-American, has always complained that such conversations never 'go anywhere'. To which I would usually reply, "The conversation doesn't need to 'go anywhere'. We need to have them because we need to understand one another." I firmly believe that much of what we saw early in the presidential campaign: the Jeremiah Wright episode, accusations of racism on the part of Bill Clinton, skepticism of Hispanic support for a black candidate, all stem, from a narrow perspective of race on the part of most of this country.

Bob Ray Sanders, a columnist and long time journalist in print and electronic media in the DFW area, calls for such a conversation in the Fort Worth-Star Telegram. Sanders rightly calls the race issue, "...a musty heavy cloak we in the United States of America simply can’t seem to shed." To stretch the metaphor a little further, we all smell the coat, and the ones we consider to be 'sophisticated' or 'enlightened' tend to be the ones who pretend not to notice the stench.

As long as we don't have this conversation, we are all exploitable.

Governor Rod Blagojevitch's appointment of former Illinois attorney general Roland Burris is a case in point. It's no question that he is qualified to hold the president-elect's senate seat. It is a question of a white governor using African-American race pride to provide him political cover in the midst of a scandal. The governor has effectively muddied the waters as a distraction. The move was cynical, and it places Burris in an unnecessarily uncomfortable position. It places African-American leaders who call for the senate to seat Burris, in the position of looking as if they support race above the common good. It puts Democrats in an terrible position and it extends the appearance of corruption.

If the Illinois governor wanted to demonstrate his magnanimity, he could have asked the state legislature to call for a special election. But of the celebration for Burris, is clouded by the governor's cynical and self-centered act. Instead of enlarging the victory for progress in race relations in the country, Blagojevitch, succeeded in an exploitative game of chicken with his own party.

But its possible for honorable citizens to be used this way, as long as talk about race makes us too uncomfortable, or feel that we have a handle on the issue because we have a black, white or Hispanic friend. We are indeed challenged and chastened because true conversations call for dialogue which forces us to 'get in the skin' of another human being. There's a line from a movie about the first Gulf War, where the American says to an Iraqi official, ' long as we're talking, we're not killing each other.'

As long as we don't talk, and avoid talking, it's not a question of who will be exploited - its a question of whose next.

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