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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Monday, April 28, 2008

Real Talk about Race: Chapter Three

What's crackin' folks?

I did not post anything at the end of last week, 'cause I was beat. And I just didn't have the energy to do our "regularly scheduled" post on race relations.

Still, we have a game plan and need to try to stick to it. So here's the two-pronged topic we skipped on Friday: being your brother's keeper and political partisanship.

I had wanted to talk about stereotypes and how we shouldn't automatically get up in arms about them, but all the renewed discussion of Barack Obama's former pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, altered my focus, because increasingly TV pundits are asking what Obama is going to do about Wright.

And I would argue that Obama shouldn't have to do anything more about Wright. Don't forget that I'm not voting for any of the three major candidates left in the presidential race. So this isn't a vote-for-Obama post. I'm just saying Obama has publicly denounced Wright's controversial sermons. Maybe he should have done that sooner. Maybe he was sincere. Maybe he only did it 'cause he's running for office. But whatever his motivations, he did it. Beyond that, Wright stepped down as pastor of Obama's church. So how much further, and deeper do those denouncements need to go. Does Obama need to drop kick Wright and punch the former pastor's wife in the nose to get his point across?

So here's how this post took shape: I was having a phone conversation with a buddy who has known my family - me, the folks, my sister, etc. - for more than 20 years. He's white. Clearly, I'm not. In the conversation, we discussed how we were raised and to what extent we're bound to speak up and out about our associates. The conversation then took a turn to politics.

My buddy knows how I was raised: in a military household with religious overtones by no-nonsense parents who set strict curfews, who eschewed criminal behavior and criminals, who were good neighbors, who were pro-military, who weren't necessarily pro-government but were definitely civic-minded. You might say my fam was socially conservative.

And with that thought in mind, my buddy asked this question: "JB, would you say that the average, middle class black person was raised like you?"

Using those strict parameters, I answered yes.

So my buddy's follow-up question was: "Then why don't most black people vote conservatively?"

And that, my friends, is the $64K question.

We all know about the perception that since the 1960s Democrats - as a party, not individuals - have demonstrated more care for civil rights, etc. And while that may be true in those matters that stoke emotion, like establishing a holiday for MLK, and recognizing on a civil level African Americans' contributions to larger society, I don't think it has been true in terms of policy. Get down to the bare bones of all the major legislation to come out of D.C. since the late 1960s, and I defy you to tell me that one party has done significantly better or worse than the other, when it comes to social policy. They're both really lousy. And I wish we had a viable third party option.

But the short, sweet answer to my bud's follow-up question is that there is a perception among some average, middle class black folks that Republicans - as a party, not individuals - think that we're all responsible for one another. And that ticks people off.

We've had a related discussion on this blog before: about being lumped in and what not. But just how responsible are we for our "brothers?" If a young black man in my neighborhood commits a heinous crime, is it my job to hold a press conference and denounce the crime so as to soothe the fears of my other neighbors and assure them that other black people in the neighborhood are appalled by the crime? Or am I responsible for just continuing to try to live a halfway decent life of my own?

If you want to get philosophical, we're all responsible for trying to make things better - whether that means setting a good example for a troubled kid, or helping a willing-to-work neighbor find a job, if we have that ability, and so on and so forth. But in terms of behavior, where do we draw the line? And does where that line is drawn affect political leanings?

Pat Buchanan, MSNBC commentator and former Republican presidential candidate, recently wrote a column that said in so many words that black folks should stop complaining about racial issues in the U.S. He suggested that "we" have no grounds for complaint, because through slavery "we" were introduced to Christianity and given a chance to be a part of a growing society. He wrote that black folks have benefited more than anyone else from welfare and food stamps and so on. He suggested "we" have no grounds for complaint, because in terms of crime and perceptions, many more black criminals assault white victims than the other way around. And he suggested any legitimate conversation about race in this country should be bound by the facts as laid out in that column.

Tell all those things to a black criminal, and you have reached your target audience. Tell them to the average black person who, like his neighbors of all races, is just trying to earn a living and live happily within the law, and you have turned that person off. You have told him that until he does something about bad people who look like him, then he is not to be taken seriously. You have told someone who likely never received a dime from the government that he is the beneficiary of a handout. You don't think average, middle class black folks are aware of glaring problems like 2/3 of black children being born to single moms? You don't think they're aware that the percentages of young black male violent criminals have skyrocketed over the past 20 years. They know. But they've worked hard to earn their own way and don't feel responsible for explaining to the rest of the country that "you don't have to be afraid of us. We're not like that."

I know people like this. I have relatives like this. They are church-going people. They are reasonably strict with their kids. They donate to the Police Benevolent Assn. fund. They coach little league. They look both ways before they cross the street. They always return their movies to Blockbuster on time...and rewound. They don't fit any of the negative stereotypes that Hollywood and D.C. have brought us. So you could argue in theory that they are "conservative" people. But, on principal, because of the perception that the Pat Buchanans of the world are the face of the Republican Party, they will never vote G.O.P.

What say you?

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  • "They don't fit any of the negative stereotypes that Hollywood and D.C. have brought us."

    And there lies the problem; the average middle-class black people don't get the same PR as the ones committing crimes. Back in the sixties the media portrayed white people in the west and the south as a bunch of bigoted illiterate rednecks; these days they are portrayed as bigoted illiterate gun-toting rednecks. The blacks back then were portrayed as victims of the aforementioned white people, and never did anything wrong except get picked on. These days things have gotten better (anyone who says things haven't was NOT around during that time), but the leaders that came up back then are still trying to put out that image. In the meantime the media only shows the dark side of things, and so the average middle class black family gets overlooked. As long as the media only shows victims and criminals, stereotypes will abound. I'm not the most eloquent writer, so I don't know if I conveyed exactly what I was trying to say here, I'm always open to discussion from anyone else.
    Just my opinion.

    By Blogger BobG, at 8:04 PM  

  • This is one of those moments where I have to remember that a stereotype is just that - it doesn't adhere to everyone. In truth - only a very small percentage actually fit into that role.

    The first time I was "slapped in the face" by stereotyping was meeting a co-worker: Gay Conservative Religious Republican. He and his partner truly broke the mold. How many of those are walking around? He is now a good friend and I can't imagine thinking of him any differently.

    I think the media continues to play a role in keeping those stereotypes alive and well.

    By Anonymous Karmyn R, at 11:12 PM  

  • Amazingly, there are a lot more black Republicans now than there used to be, simply because there are a lot more rich blacks now than there used to be. When it comes to cutting big Federal taxes, there are no racial barriers. Bob Johnson and Rupert Murdock both hire high price tax lawyers yet belong to different political parties. I doubt Rupert would join one, he'd donate to both of them.

    I have friends who are "operatives" in both political parties. They will tell you that they would have huge majorities if it weren't for one splinter group or another in their party, they would sweep the nation. Typically, the Republicans point at the religious right, unless you are a member of the religious right, in which case they point at the pesky moderates in the party. The Democrats just point at whatever you aren't and complain about them as they are sort of an umbrella party containing everything from conservatives to liberals (what do you think Robert Byrd of Virginia is, a liberal?).

    So to me, the reality is, which party has done what good for exactly who, and when? I recently pointed out that the mandate to produce 25% of the corn crop into gasoline, along with a hefty Federal farm subsidy, was passed by the 2007 Congress, which was heavily Democratic. The result has driven prices through the roof, here and throughout the world. Congress is about to pass it again.

    Pat Buchanan writes bigoted things. He's not the Republican Party. The Republicans don't have a corner on stupid. Congress is equal opportunity. Not that I have an opinion, naturally.

    By Blogger The CEO, at 11:45 PM  

  • I was born poor in the south. I think it's illegal for me to vote Republican.

    Which is okay, since I have a social conscience, anyway. :-)

    By Blogger SWF42, at 3:13 PM  

  • What about Senator Byrd who joined the Ku Klux Klan in 1942?
    How could you vote the other way with him as the face of the democratic party?

    I'm being the devils advocate here (as I've never said anything about Buchanan cuz mama said don't say anything if you can't say anything good.)

    By Blogger Pamela, at 2:24 AM  

  • Blogger SWF42 said...
    I was born poor in the south. I think it's illegal for me to vote Republican. Which is okay, since I have a social conscience, anyway. :-)

    I was also born poor in the south, which is the very reason I vote Republican!

    By Anonymous sgh, at 3:11 PM  

  • I think that generally the Republican party has missed out on the opportunity to capture the black vote for the very reasons you lay out here; the general attitude that illegitimacy, crime, and such are problems of all black Americans instead of recognizing that there is another significant group of black folks out there who are more or less you "average Joe".

    ...and yeah, until the Republicans get it through their heads that average Joes of all races don't like being treated like a citizen who is always on the fringe of a crime spree, then they're going to lose that portion of the vote.

    I guess you could say it's partly due to attitude and partly (and I don't mean this to sound crass) due to bad marketing.

    By Anonymous Steph, at 3:46 PM  

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