Chuck (charlesofcamden) wrote,

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The R Word

Let’s take it back a few years. I had a temp job for about 4 months at a large hospital in Detroit. One of my fellow temps was a black man (I’ll call him Jack) about my age and about my size, and as far as I could tell, he did his job about as well as I did mine. At the next desk over from me was an assistant who worked for the hospital full-time (I’ll call her Jane). She seemed reasonably bright, articulate, personable, and seemed to genuinely like me. Oh, but she did not like Jack. It was a mystery to me for a while, but one day, things clicked into sharper focus.

Jack had come by and had made small talk with me for a few minutes. After he departed, Jane spoke. She was fuming with disgust. “Did you hear him?” she asked, “The way he was talking? As if he were smart and educated. What a phony! I hate it when those people try to sound like us; as if they’re intelligent. I can’t stand it when he does that!” That might not be quite word-for-word, but it’s as close as I can remember it. Well, except for one thing – she didn’t say “those people.” She used a coarse though well-known term I’ve rarely heard in an office setting, before or since that moment.

I realized that it didn’t actually matter what Jack said or did; Jane knew who he was before they’d ever met. He was a black man, and she knew how black people were. She was not a young woman; she was considerably older than I, and I realized that her opinions were quite settled in this department, so there was no point in starting an argument with her. I merely continued being friendly and helpful towards Jack – a good coworker, in other words. I took precisely the same approach towards Jane. I half expected her to one day ask me why I was so friendly towards Jack, but she never broached the subject.

I wonder how Jane feels about the upcoming presidential election.

I have to laugh when people express the wish that we would stop talking about the subject of race when discussing this election, because race is an inextricable part of it, like it or not. Let me be clear on this: I don’t think this election should be decided on the basis of race, but the fact is, it might come down to precisely that, which makes it a fair and necessary topic for examination and public discussion.

There are people who will vote for Obama because he is black. There are people who will vote against Obama because he is black. There are also people who will vote for or against McCain because he is white. Anyone who wishes to deny these simple facts is either bizarrely out of touch with American society or is simply in denial. Then there are the folks who will concede the truth of those statements, but who detach from it by asserting the all such numbers will even out, leaving the election to be decided based on more traditional criteria. I am unaware of any research data that backs up such an assumption.

I am willing to consider the possibility that most people will not use race as their criterion for choosing the next president. But even if that is true, the poll numbers are close enough that a relatively small number of racially motivated voters could tilt the election either way. The important phrase there is “either way.” I have heard many a white McCain supporter carp about what they see as the huge number of black voters will support Obama based solely on the color of his skin. While I have no doubt at all that such people are out there, I would respect their viewpoint a good deal more if I heard some acknowledgment on their part of the many white voters who will commit the same color-based choice the other way.

When I think about my former coworker “Jane,” I realize another problem. In the past, when I have heard friends and coworkers the morning after election night as they analyzed the results, the people who voted for the loser have tended to take an attitude of sighing and saying, “Well, he’s going to have his chance. Let’s get behind him and see what he can do.” But I fear that if Obama should win it, the Janes of the world will be unable to offer him that chance. Because, you see, the Janes of the world knew who Obama was before they ever heard of him. They knew he was one of “those people” who try to sound smart and educated, as if they were one of us.

By the way, if you’re wondering, I still have not gone on record as supporting either candidate. But I will say this: We should take a long look at their running mates, because the chances seem better than usual that our next president could die in office; McCain from ill health, and Obama from being assassinated. I wanted to put those words into print because I have spoken to several people who have admitted that they’ve been having precisely those fears, but considered them unseemly to say aloud. I think it’s far too important a point to leave unsaid.

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