So much was made about Barack Obama being the first African-American president, that more subtle—and more important—issues were ignored.
Obama, at 48, is decidedly not a Baby Boomer. He wasn’t part of the raging segregation debate of the ’50s, nor was he an adult during the tumult of the ’60s—black power, white rage, all the rest.
Obama’s election was instead a triumph of a new generation, one that is more comfortable about diversity than the generation that came before. Nowhere is that more obvious than the recent public discussion of whether the rude outburst by U.S. Rep. Joe Wilson, the South Carolina Republican. A number of columnists, and no less an observer than former President Jimmy Carter, almost reflexively maneuvered themselves to an allegation of racism.
That reaction is perfectly understandable to those of us of a certain age. Anyone who’s a veteran of the ’50s or the ’60s can be excused for looking at things through a narrow lens—the first African-American president and a racist backlash. We lived through those things.
But one of the greatest things about any new generation is just that—it’s a new generation. And the one that follows the Baby Boom—Gen X, or maybe the Baby Bust (it’s been called a number of things)—has an experience far different from what came before.
That freshness and lack of experience can easily be criticized by huffy older folks, but it also gives us all a chance to start afresh. In the late ’60s, black and white people started teaming up in a way never experienced before. Biracial became a new part of the population, and biracial identity is one that really isn’t discussed much, certainly not in the mainstream press.
Rarely do we hear President Obama described as the nation’s first biracial president. Or even the first multi-racial president. But he is. Think back to his brilliant and memorable speech on race in the aftermath of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright flap. Anyone with an interest in race in America ought to remember that speech, because it will probably be one of the most celebrated speeches in our time. “I can no more disown (the Rev. Wright) than I can disown the black community,” he said. “ I can no more disown him than I can my white grandmother.”
Then, in the aftermath of Rep. Wilson’s interruption, Obama shrugged it off. That’s a powerful strategy. He shrugged it off.
That’s not to say that race is somehow a closed subject. In fact, race isn’t discussed—either here in Santa Cruz or around the country—near enough. But the subject of race is a far more complicated one than many of us—and mostly the media—realize.
To someone under 40, the outdated, simple story of race in America makes little sense. What race are you discussing? Diversity means just that—there are no set patterns here. When election results are announced on television news shows at election time, we hear a lot about the black vote, the Latino vote and even the gay vote. But ever-so-slowly, those descriptions mean less and less as new shades of gray are introduced into the American population.
The Census Bureau has had a tough time keeping up-to-date on its racial categories, because the increasing multi-racial nature of our population is getting harder to document.
In one of the great old-time blues songs, the late Memphis Slim weaved a tale about going back home to the South and how he had to re-learn the old ways of segregation. Happily, that song sounds dated today, and in his song, he had the answer. “It’s youth,” he said. “They’re changing things.”
That process doesn’t slow down. Rep. Wilson’s outburst reflects only on him—and his supporters. It doesn’t reflect on the president. And the president’s reaction was perfect. He shrugged it off.
And it’s not only race. The recent vote in California to support the anti-gay marriage Prop. eight will be unthinkable in 10 years time. To those under 40, being gay is roughly equivalent to being left-handed. It’s what someone is. No big deal.
Racism, and prejudice, of course, still exist. They will as long as there is diversity in America. But what’s important to remember is that racism—like race—gets more complex over time. Race remains a subject of key importance —just as President Obama showed in his speech.
But the whole discussion requires more thought than before. And those of us who were around in an earlier era would do well to regard how things have changed, and how we live now.
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