Friday, November 28, 2008

Why America Was Ready For Obama

The Little Old Racist Lady And Her Black Friends Next Door

by Polar Levine for Yankin' The Food Chain,

In the run-up to the primaries I enjoyed weekly debates with one of my close pals. He was positive that Guiliani would be the next Pres. I responded that our ex-mayor was too socially liberal for the Republican base and too ugly for everyone else. My guess was that Obama would be the guy. During the '04 Dem convention when I watched Obama cruise up to the podium like a young Smokey Robinson and croon like a superstar, I said, "That's the next president." Actually I thought it would be another four years down the road. My friend was dead sure that America would never vote for an African-American; we were too racist and too stupid. But I disputed that argument over the course of the entire election drama. My rationale was based on one little old lady from New Jersey.

Betty is 83, a daughter of immigrants and raised in a blue-collar suburb of Boston. She was programmed with all the racial stereotypes and resentments that were unmitigated by the social stigmatization of racists that prevailed half a century later. Her son, a long-time friend of mine, told me how his mom freaked when he brought home an African-American friend in first grade. "Never bring him around here again. Never!" He experienced the same tirade over his black girlfriends in high school and much later well into adulthood.

Pretty shocking, huh? Actually to me it was really shocking because I always loved Betty. When I was in high school she was funny and generous -- the favorite of the moms and the favorite aunt of my friend's cousins. How could such poison inhabit a sweetheart like Betty who let her freak-flag waving son's freshly painted and scrubbed bedroom walls become a canvas for his friends' obscene radical graffiti? Those walls were left untouched when he left for college, and the room was not re-painted until the family moved to a house a few blocks away. It's easy to imagine decent, smart people harboring some latent form of relatively benign racism -- i.e. never expressed in a punitive way. But Betty made it clear that any person of a minority background whose skin was darker than Betty's could be subjected to humiliation. Betty was never struck by the ironic fact of her own minority status. She was a typical product of a pre-Freudian, pre-irony generation and culture.

That was before a black family moved in next door some time in the Eighties. I laughed till I almost suffocated when I was told.

A decade later she told me about how she offered to house that same family, by then her favorite neighbors, when their home was destroyed by a fire and how depressed she was when they moved. Turns out Betty had never actually interacted with blacks or Latinos before; had never known that middle class versions of "them" existed. And I watched her yuk it up with the African-American guests at my friend's wedding. Sixty years of programming was erased virtually overnight. And last month when she told me she was voting for Barack Obama, her tone was as matter-of-fact as if she's said she was going to the dentist on November four.

While all the infoheads were spouting on the Bradley Effect, I knew that over the course of a full generation millions of people like Betty saw the darker skinned "others" on TV, in the movies, in the neighborhoods, in the doctors' offices, in the supermarkets, at their children's and grandchildren's birthday parties and school plays. They've also been getting used to gays and probably will be voting against bans on gay marriage when Obama is running for his second term.

There are millions of other Bettys out there who will do America proud. It may take an imminent cataclysm or one of "them" moving in next door, but I have this faith-based trust in Betty. She's the change I can believe in.

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