23 August, 2008

Racism vs. "Racism"

[Update: apparently my initial formatting on this post was confusing. To clarify, this is not my story, but that of a relative. I merely added some commentary before and after.]

Like many observers, I was stunned by Obama’s selection of Biden (decades-long senator from Delaware), particularly considering Biden’s awful racial “gaffe” last year. I was discussing the issue with a family member who had some rather insightful things to say, which I have asked her to share here.

One side of my family has a long history in both Pennsylvania and the Delmarva Peninsula (Delaware, Eastern Maryland, part of Virginia; an agricultural and fishing area also called the Eastern Shore). I myself spent the ages of five to thirteen in Delaware and Eastern Maryland and saw the echoes of what she experienced. Here is what she wrote:

I am close to the age of Joe Biden, and I have lived in both areas from which he hails. When I was five, my family moved from Philadelphia to the Eastern Shore part of Maryland. When Biden enthusiastically described Barak Obama as “articulate and bright and clean,” I knew immediately what he meant.

During my childhood in that part of the county, the vast majority of African Americans I encountered were extremely poor, living in shacks—often without water for good hygiene—and with substandard educational opportunities. I attended small religious-run schools in white neighborhoods most of my 12 grades, so I did not know many black people personally. As a white child, my opinion (which would change in later life) was formed by what I observed from a distance in my limited world, one that was far from unique among whites in that time and place.

My father spent some time contracted to a shipping company. His work included 3-4 hours a day going from place to place—“flophouse to flophouse,” as he called it—trying to find his crew of black men to load chickens from the farms because most could not be counted on to meet him for work at a set time and location. One summer when I was 12 or 13, I remember standing outside while my mother went into the house to get paychecks for Dad’s employees, who showed up at various times on payday. In the past, farm tools, tack, and supplies had been stolen from our barn and yard while mother was inside getting the checks.

At one point, a talented black mechanic who worked for Dad was hired to drive a semi within the state, transporting chickens to market. One weekend he disappeared and returned days later with bullet holes in the truck and no good explanation. My parents (who had generous and compassionate natures) continually tried to help him and his family. Mother taught the wife how to preserve food for winter and find ways to improve their existence (we were not far from poor ourselves, but Mother’s homemaking skills made our lives supremely more comfortable). But none of these efforts seemed to make a difference for that family.

As a teenager (I'm embarrassed to say), I watched the movement Dr. King led and the March on Washington, puzzled by what all the fuss was about. In my young world, I couldn't understand the problem, since they had the right to vote and work.

In my early 20’s (the early 1960s) I worked a night shift in the local hospital with a young black women in the business office, the first black person with whom I had regular and sustained contact. She told me that she was one of the few girls in her high school class who wasn't pregnant by 16, and that her grandmother who raised her was very, very strict with her. It was paying off, because she was going to college and her fiancĂ© was about to graduate from college with wonderful professional opportunities laid out for the taking. All this was impressive to my prejudiced mind, as she was the exception to my experiences so far.

In 1965, I went to work in Washington, DC and my world expanded further. The blacks in the federal government had had the benefits of education and jobs; these were not the black people I knew from back home on the Peninsula. There, I met a black woman my age who had grown up much the same way I did, in a home with both parents, conservative, hardworking, and with a religious tradition; we were astounded at how similar we were in every way but color. Our assumptions of each other’s race fell away. We grew a lot, made jokes at each other’s expense, teased, fought, shared an apartment, and became sisters in every way. In the decades since, we’ve been through marriages and births, buried parents and a baby boy, and laughed and wept over our lives together. Knowing her changed my thinking and taught me to consider people one at a time.

But early on when I invited my new black friend to come home with me for the weekend to meet my parents, my father asked me not to come. It was 1966 and H. Rap Brown of the Black Panthers was in Cambridge, Maryland urging blacks to arm themselves and “prepare to die.” Violence and fires broke out and spilled over into other towns on the Eastern Shore. Dad did not think it would be safe. He was right. Blacks rode up and down the streets, shooting randomly at houses, outbuildings, trashcans and vehicles.

In the years since those terrible times, the area has improved in tolerance, integration and racial acceptance on both sides, as has the rest of the country. Yet those of us who grew up there and then left to live around the country had to unlearn the conscious and unconscious lessons of race we'd been taught.

But this is where Joe Biden has lived since he was 10. I’m sure he saw calling Barack Obama clean and articulate as a compliment. But when I heard him say that months ago, my first reaction was horror that Biden would use those words. Unfortunately, I understood exactly where he was coming from and what he meant.

Regardless of his subsequent political work on civil rights, Biden's evaluation of Obama was not a simple slip of the tongue or a misstatement, it was a regression into what still lurks in places he pretends don't exist anymore. "Clean" meant exactly what it sounds like, and "articulate" (educated) speaks for itself--nothing coded or hidden about it. Yet Biden's decidedly un-PC comments are called “refreshing candor” and an indicator of "strength and character."
Meanwhile, we’ve spent the last month dissecting McCain’s ads and every Republican pronouncement on Obama for “coded” messages of “subliminal/subterranean racism.”

And yet this is the man Obama embraces? I'm still stunned (and a bit appalled) by the choice.