I keep hearing from both sides that this election should not be about race. It should be about the issues. Well, where I come from, race is an issue. And I’ve just had a terrible thought about this whole thing.
Since it has gotten down to Obama and McCain as our two choices, it’s always seemed obvious to me who the better candidate is. If their skin colors had been green and pink the choice between these two men for president would not be hard for me. Iraq, the economy, health care, the environment… it seems that wherever they have divergent opinions, my own ideas and hopes fall far closer to Obama’s camp (I don’t agree with either of these guys on capital punishment or Israel policy, among others). Anyways, ostensibly this election has got nothing to do with race for me. Throw in their running mates and I can’t even hear an argument from the other side without literally laughing so hard that my eyes water. Then I get an awkward feeling in my gut.
This being the case – the right choice so clear and obvious to me – I thought maybe it could be a little bit about race if McCain were to win. If Obama lost, how could the black community of the United States NOT think it was about the color of his skin when he was so clearly the better candidate?
This has been the opinion widely expressed internationally (probably best circulated in email and on facebook in the U.S. through this article). As Slate’s Jacob Weisberg put it in this August article about race, if Obama lost, the world would have no choice but to assume that, “the United States had its day, but in the end couldn’t put its own self-interest ahead of its crazy irrationality over race.” Made sense to me.
But wait. Here comes my terrible thought. R e a l l y s c a r y. Is it possible that it would be worse for race relations in this country if Obama WINS?
I’ll explain myself. Let me begin with a short story.
Last Spring Break I took a few buddies – some from overseas – back to my hometown of Durham, North Carolina with me. The neighborhood where my house is looks more or less like the Mac-Groveland community I now live in here in Saint Paul, MN. Add a charming southern twang, and it looks like the communities of the U.S. that they see on the televisions of their home countries. I think “lawns” pretty well essentializes how the rural Salvadorans I lived with in my gap year imagined the United States to be. That’s how international media and Hollywood portrays the U.S. abroad. And the neighborhood I grew up in in Durham and the Grand Avenue I live on now look more or less the same. Middle-to-upper class. And mostly white. My neighborhood in Durham has people of color in approximately the same proportions as Macalester.
With these international friends at home with me (where I’m always conscious of race), I got to thinking: If you walked around Macalester’s campus and you were from overseas, things would look pretty equal between the skin colors in this country. Sure, you’d see more whites on campus but the dorms aren’t segregated, everyone eats at the same cafeteria, the professors aren’t racists. Basic participant observation would draw one to these such assumptions. As an aspiring anthropologist if I were put on Mac’s campus, that’s what I would conclude; It’s pretty much the same deal over here no matter what color you are. If you walked around my neighborhood in Durham, you’d see something similar. My buddies did. In fact, the Duke surgeon that lives up the street from me has a nicer house than I do – and he’s black. So what’s the big deal? Why are people in this country still obsessing over race? You’d have to wonder.
So when I decided to throw everyone in mom’s minivan and give a tour; show them Duke and the gardens; the stadium where Bull Durham was filmed; the tobacco park restoration project to turn the industrial area into a nice center of offices and fountains, I thought I may as well include some of my own old hangouts. I took them by El Centro Hispano where I used to answer phones and file tax papers with folks who had trouble with English; showed them some taco stands that could be straight out of Mexico that I used to like to eat at. Not quite Grand Avenue. Then we went beyond. We crossed Alston Avenue where things start to look different. Really different. East Durham is where literally HALF of Durham’s population lives. It’s as different as black and white. Literally. You see, if you hung out in the neighborhood I slept in for a dozen years, you’d never guess that my city has got a pretty even split between black and white. Roughly 45% of both with 8% Latino and 2% Asian.
But East of Alston Avenue, there are no white people. Bars on the windows of all the convenience stores. I won’t lie — I always check to make sure the car doors are locked. Some streets are gravel – some are still packed dirt. Schools with small cement slab playgrounds. Still in America? All the houses look the same. The guys were surprised. It’s mid-March and it’s already friggin humid as all hell. Everyone sits out on their dilapidated porches. If you live in this part of town, you can’t afford A/C. We arrived at rows upon rows of brick apartment buildings. 1A, then 2A, then 1B, then 2B. Section housing. A friend who grew up in the Soviet Union said these dwellings reminded him of the block housing he grew up in. Turns out public housing looks like public housing if you’re in Siberia or if you’re in the American South. And it’s equally aesthetically pleasing.
So back to my terrible thought. Is it possible that it would be worse for race relations in this country if Obama WINS next week?
Well, president is the highest office in this country. That means it has got to carry some kind of symbolic value. Would having elected a black president mean that the world and the citizens of this country would be able to finally say that race is not an issue here? If we’re saying that we should vote on the issues instead of race, does that mean that race is not a political issue in this country? In our minds, would we (the white people of the U.S.) think that we had put our fates in the hands of an African-American man and that as a result, we were not living in a segregated or racist society anymore? What if I still lock my car doors when I am in a predominantly black neighborhood? Do I think Alston Avenue is going to dissolve into thin air and black going to spill into white and white into black if and when the map turns blue on Tuesday night? Will we all just be one common blue if Obama wins? If Obama wins, it will make history. But will we also forget history and the Alston Avenue of present day America thinking we have moved on?