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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Post Election America: Positively post-racial or a dead end street?

I wish that for just one time

You could stand inside my shoes
And just for that one moment
I could be you

Barack Obama’s victory last November was more than just a 'defining moment' in American politics. It redefined America. And while race was never an ‘issue’ per se, it was always there. A powerful undercurrent that, had it not been handled so deftly by the Obama campaign, could have run not just the election but the entire country aground.

Of course, Barack Obama had something more powerful than confidence, competence and a good dose of canniness going for him. He had at his disposal the power to transform a nation’s perspective. By electing Barack Obama, we would finally have the opportunity to stand in someone else’s shoes.

The election of the first black president was supposed to have ushered in a new, post-racial era in American politics. Ironically, the exact opposite has happened. Instead of quelling America’s need to incessantly talk about race, all the talked about for the two months is race.

A cartoon likening the author of the stimulus bill to a rabid chimpanzee? America called out as a ‘nation of cowards’ by the first African-American attorney general? The distribution of a bawdy burlesque of a popular children’s song by the leading contender for the Republican pary that cast Barack Obama as ‘Puff the Magic Negro’?

If this is what it’s like to be standing in the shoes of black America, America may need a new cobbler—

Forget the fact that the image of a monkey has long been associated with blacks in a way that is derogatory and degrading. This monkey doesn’t have anything to do with a certain black man who also happens to have put his name on the recent stimulus package. No, the crazed primate referenced here is a raging, out of control tax-and-spend Congress.

And don’t get too caught up on the words Eric Holder used to categorize America’s attitude on race. Sure, he called us a ‘nation of cowards,’ but what he was really trying to say was that we need to muster the courage within us all if we’re ever to find strength to truly get along.

And it was never Chip Saltzman’s intention to characterized Obama as an archetypal cinematic "Magic Negro" — a black man who assuages white guilt, ala the character played by Sidney Poitier in Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. It was a joke, people.

Of course, the problem with all of these defenses (aside from the fact that they’re patently pathetic) is that they couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Our elected officials just shot the future of God knows how many future generations full of holes, and the New York Post wants to pin this triple murder on a monkey that gave its owner a fistful of claws when she went to pet it?

And what about that little etymological end run Eric Holder tried to execute? Holder is a lawyer—America’s top lawyer no less—and as the attorney general should be using his words to codify a new approach to race relations in this country, not using them to coddle us into singing “We Shall Overcome.”

And Saltsman's stumble—made less than a month after the complete routing of the Republican party—came at a time when the Republican Party is struggling to define the role of loyal opposition to the nation's first African-American president. But if the Republicans think a ‘joke’ means taking jabs with antiquated, offensive racial stereotypes, the only thing going up in a puff of smoke is the number of Republicans in Congress in 2010.

When Bob Dylan delivered “Positively 4th Street” from his precarious perch atop the pop charts in 1965, everyone just assumed he’d set out to ridicule the ‘folkies’ who had criticized him for leaving the movement to ‘go electric.’ Of course, he hadn’t left anyone. Instead, Dylan had just come into his own. And whatever ‘post-folk’ period he was accused of skewering was, in hindsight, an unavoidable phenomenon anyway.

Forty-five years later, America is at a similar place of self-discovery. The cartoon by political satirist, Signe Wilkinson, which appeared last week in newspapers across the country in reaction this so-called 'post-racial' America, summed up the dialogue that’s been sweeping across this country perfectly.

The image depicts a group of would-be travelers patiently taking their turn walking through a metal detector at an airport. A large, hand-drawn sign reads: “Welcome to our conversation on race.” But the real punchline is found on the disclaimer: “No cartoons, no jokes, no controversial books, films, sermons, etc.”

The reason the cartoon resonates is that it rings true. We have indeed entered a new era of race relations in America.

We bought the ticket when we elected Obama. Now, we get to take the ride. But before we do, we’re all going to have to take off our shoes, empty our pockets and check that baggage we’ve been carrying around for generations.

Of course in this process of new found self-examination, there’s always the chance that we actually do end up in someone else’s shoes.

But before we spout off at the mouth the first thing that comes to mind, perhaps we should click our heels together and heed the advice of an equally fitting cliché: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Our wounds are deep, America. It's going to take time for them to heal. There's no need to rip off the bandages all at once…

You see me on the street
You always act surprised
You say, "How are you?" "Good luck"
But you don't mean it
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