Prejudice and Pride
About two decades ago, I had to participate in a collective decision whether to hire a woman to deal with the Japanese. Next to Muslims’, Japanese society is one of the most male-dominated on Earth. It was even more so back then.
While in a meeting, I observed that a woman dealing with the Japanese might meet rejection or disrespect. A female co-worker later excoriated me for accepting others’ gender prejudice and thereby fostering inequality of opportunity.
The vehemence of my co-worker’s attack took me aback. But upon reflection I saw she was right. By accommodating others’ cultural prejudice, I had undermined my own deeply held values.
I never made that same mistake again. I take pride in supporting the best person for the job, whatever the job, whatever the presumed obstacles, and whoever the best person might be.
Today people who ought to know better are making the same mistake with Barack Obama. They disclaim any prejudice on their own part. But they refuse to support Obama because, they say, others won’t support a candidate of his race.
The euphemism for this bit of vicarious prejudice is the “electability” argument. It’s been around since the beginning of the campaign. My own personal response to it has always been, “But he’s the best candidate.”
For a while, the “electability” argument was in remission. As more people got to know Senator Obama, his books, his brains, his judgment, his calm demeanor, and his prudence and self-restraint, his race faded into the background. Talent got the better of prejudice, including vicarious prejudice.
But now, as Obama nears a well-deserved nomination but has lost a few primaries, the beasts of vicarious bias are rearing their ugly heads again. They’ve gone so far as to romp on the front page of the New York Times, in a piece that properly belongs in the opinion pages. (Like much of the country, the Times has been a bit schizophrenic lately. Its editorial board recently issued a stern warning against sleaze-based campaigning.)
For me, the beasts’ resurgence holds great irony because the person holding their reins is now a woman.
Hillary doesn’t rely on vicarious prejudice directly. She uses innuendo and implication. Good lawyer that she is, she conceals her purpose by splitting hairs. She would have us believe that her repeated references to Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s intemperate remarks and Barack Obama’s bare acquaintance with a former member of the Weather Underground named Ayers have nothing to do with race.
But of course they have everything to do with race, and everyone knows it. They offer fodder for the beasts of prejudice.
Does anyone believe that a man who has spent his whole adult life trying—with considerable success—to make America a better place subscribes to a “God damn America” philosophy? Does anyone believe that Obama, who was president of the Harvard Law Review, taught constitutional law, and proposed the first and most aggressive plan to fight terrorism, is soft on terrorists or otherwise suspect because he once held a meeting at the home of a man who had been a member of an obscure and entirely unsuccessful domestic extremist organization forty years ago, when Obama was eight years old?
These flimsy charges rely on the most tenuous claims of guilt by association. Logically and substantively, they deserve howls of derision. But pundits and campaign consultants take them seriously because they know the charges will find fertile ground in minds infected with prejudice. They make sense as a campaign tactic only to the extent they provoke and magnify voters’ direct and vicarious bias.
So Hillary is not just arguing that others’ racism makes Obama unelectable. She is feeding their prejudice.
Every Democrat (of every race) ought to be outraged. We’ve struggled, fought, written and argued for racial equality and harmony since World War II. We just observed the fortieth anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., our hero and martyr to those still unrealized national goals.
People who didn’t support those goals left our party, but we endured their loss and soldiered on. Our own effort, plus time, changing demographics and cultural progress softened old prejudices.
Now, after forty years in the wilderness of Nixon’s “southern strategy”, we’ve nearly got our hands on the prize. We’ve got a once-in-a-century candidate, whom people of all races enthusiastically support. He’s precisely half white and half black, so both sides of our great racial divide can claim him. Our youth of all races are leading the way: they don’t give a damn what color Obama is, as long as he’s the best, which he is. We’re not going to see his like again—of whatever race—for a long, long time. And conditions at home and abroad are more ripe for a Democratic victory than they have been since FDR’s time.
So we have the “perfect storm” of favorable political and economic conditions and the most talented candidate we’ve seen in forty years. If Barack and Hillary were both white males, Hillary wouldn’t have lasted to Super Tuesday. Yet we are now rewarding her for tarnishing our values and our party by feeding and exploiting prejudice to stay in the race. And we are doing so despite her negatives—the highest of any candidate since Richard Nixon—and her questionable commitment to popular democracy.
Our choice now is clear. We can succumb to sleaze and fear the beasts of others’ prejudice, whose strength no one has ever accurately measured. We can become complicit in yet another sordid exercise of collective racism, excusing ourselves with false expediency. With the prize so close, we can forsake our fundamental values as Democrats and forfeit the general election and a shot at making history. Or we can renew our pride in what Democrats believe, square our shoulders, and continue marching toward the truths that our Founders held to be self-evident in their Declaration of Independence during the reign of King George III.
Footnote: The only people whom the Weather Underground ever killed were their own members. Four of them died when a bomb they were making blew up prematurely.
Postcript: The Reverend Jeremiah Wright
Everyone reading this post should set aside an hour over the weekend to watch the video or read the transcript. The interview is that good and that important.
I am a Jew; Wright is a Christian. If he were a Jew, I would be proud to call him my rabbi. If I were a Christian, I would be proud to call him my pastor.
He is one of the most brilliant, well-educated, articulate, urbane, spiritual, kind, patient, beautiful, wise and fundamentally good men I have ever had the privilege of seeing interviewed on TV. But you would never know it from the out-of-context snippets of his sermons that spin masters from our political campaigns and mass media have been playing in endless loops.
I had planned to write a post on the need to train our youth to recognize propaganda, just as my high school trained me in the early sixties. But seeing Moyers’ interview and comparing it with those snippets gives you all the education on the subject you will ever need. Anyone who makes the comparison will never forget the lessons that human beings and their lives cannot be captured in out-of-context sound bites, and that anyone who tries to do so is up to no good. No one who makes the comparison will ever see Hillary Clinton or Fox News in the same light again.
Most college classes are finished for the year. But secondary schools are still in session. Every high-school and junior-high-school class in civics, social studies, government, politics, ethics or religion should drop its curriculum tomorrow and show the interview in full. Bill Moyers should get a prize for airing it.
As for Wright, he is truly a man of God. He has renewed my faith in man, my pride in the self-evident truths that my essay addresses, and my hope that something good may yet come of the attempt to smear this extraordinary man and, through him, an extraordinary leader.
UPDATE: For more on Reverend Wright and his later appearance at the National Press Club, see this post.