A Louisiana justice of the peace recently refused to marry an interracial couple because they are an interracial couple. That’s pretty messed up. I don’t have much else to add to what the blogosphere has already said about this; my point in bringing it up is simply that a public official denying a black man and a white woman the right to marry each other stands out as a example of racism in modern America.
So when Allison Kilkenny writes “the problem of racism infests every facet of the American experience, including the ongoing health care debate,” are we really talking about racism in any comparable sense? Are Glenn Beck and Keith Bardwell really the same god-awful phenomenon?
Many of the tea party protesters march to apparent, intense racial resentment: their “movement” overall is as white as it is conservative; much of their propaganda is certainly racist. (Maybe there is a difference between saying racist things and actually being racist, and maybe there isn’t – but that’s beside the point.)
That President Obama is a target of racism – or of racist language, or whatever – is a matter of political hindrance: It makes leading an already divided nation even more difficult that it might have otherwise been for, say, John Kerry or Al Gore. But at the end of any given day, Obama is still the president of the United States, and his life is still grand. Stresses of the presidency aside, Barack Obama is not a “victim” of anything.
But in Hammond, Louisiana, Keith Bardwell denied two human beings their marriage license because the would-be bride is white and the would-be groom is black. Right now, a renegade sheriff is trolling neighborhoods in Maricopa County, Arizona, detaining people, breaking up families, threatening people with deportation for appearing to be Mexican. These things are actually happening in America – in 2009.
Racism pits people against people in awful, often debilitating ways. At its worst, though, it isn’t about internalized messages or offended sensibilities; it’s a matter of human beings, institutions, and injustice. There are victims – in the sense that the word actually signifies victimization – of racial prejudice in America today. President Obama is not one of them. He is a target, yes, but not a victim.
The tea party protests show us scores of bitter and withering souls who will never love a black leader. That’s their loss, really, but defending President Obama against that horde shouldn’t pivot progressive focus from the crippling, typical blows endured by those deprived of a spotlight.
The year is 2009. We live in an America of segregated schools, racial profiling, mandatory minimums, gross disparities in health care coverage, and a still-neglected New Orleans. Racism lives: it strikes viciously, and it strikes far from the Oval Office.
[This piece was originally submitted on 30 October 2009 as part of an interview with Change.org.]