"I am not a racist." The fact that we even have to make a qualifying statement such as "I am not a racist!" in America may say less about our past and more about the present misuse of labels. Qualifying statements may also indicate how quickly others are to take offense in our culture. However, racial qualifications may have more to do with conscience than anything else.
Last month, my daughter's travel soccer team decided to go out to dinner after a game. Over pizza, the girls and the team parents were able to get to know each other on a more personal level. During some light conversation with another father, I asked, "Has anyone ever told you that you look like Kurt Russell?" He said, "No, is that a good thing?" I said, "Well, he's a good looking guy, successful, and famous!" I then jokingly said, "I guess it's better than being compared to Barak Obama." He laughed and shortly thereafter, we finished our pizza and went our separate ways.
Later that night, my conscience began bothering me regarding that last statement but I could not understand why. It finally occurred to me that my struggle had to do with the potential perception with which my comment could have been received because Barak Obama is a black President. I began thinking to myself, "I am not a racist and there are no latent issues of which I am aware." I further protested, "My comment was politically motivated and had nothing to do race." Yet, I was really bothered by the fact that it could have been misconstrued.
I began conducting an objective comparative analysis of the two men in my mind. Given the same criteria used to consider that the Kurt Russell comment was a compliment, I would have to admit that Barak Obama is also a good looking guy, successful, and famous. "So what is the difference between these two men?" I asked myself. To be truly objective, I have to admit that at the time of the comment, I knew very little about Kurt Russell other than the fact that he has been cohabitating with his girlfriend, Goldie Hawn, for over two decades. While, on the other hand, Barak Obama is a family man in a traditional, monogamous marriage, like I am.
My mind began probing for some kind of evidence to clear my conscience and relieve my guilt. The defense attorney of my inner voice began to compose a mental checklist – proof that would undeniably declare my innocence. Typical thoughts began streaming:
- My childhood friends were from many different ethnic backgrounds.
- I have a very diverse group of friends at church, in my community, and at work.
- As a professional, I have even been approached by a friend who asked me to consider partnering with him to begin a multi-cultural ministry.
- For leisure, I am rereading my all-time favorite autobiography "Up From Slavery" by Booker T. Washington, which I believe should be required reading for every leader in America, if not every American.
That's it! Booker T. Washington – Probably no other person in history overcame greater odds, rising from slavery to national prominence. Booker T. Washington completely understood the significance of the racial issues of his day for both black and white Americans. He believed that "No man whose vision is bounded by color can come into contact with what is highest and best in the world" (111). He held this conviction for the black man, no less than for the white man. Pockets of racial tension still exist within America today, but I believe that Booker T. Washington would be disappointed that race is still an issue and that "color" is used politically to intimidate opposition from speaking out against ideas that are counterproductive to the interest of our country.
Booker T. Washington, no doubt, would be delighted to see the fruit of his labor and that of his fellow countrymen resulting in the election of the first black President. However, I do believe that he would not endorse the current political climate which serves two extremes. One that seeks to ignore verifiable issues of racism and the other that attempts to silence opposition with false accusations of racism, both of which are forms of racial discrimination.
When Booker T. Washington was invited to speak at The Atlanta Exposition on September 18, 1895, among other comments he said, "No race can prosper till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem. It is at the bottom of life we must begin, and not at the top. Nor should we permit our grievances to overshadow our opportunities" (107). As he addressed a crowd of black and white Americans in the South, he deliberately emphasized that progress between the two races could only take place as opportunities overshadowed grievances. He believed that progress could only advance through the combined effort of both races working together in an industrial spirit of cooperation and not by harboring resentment over past experiences.
My original comment could have just as easily been made during the Presidency of Bill Clinton or George W. Bush. If I said to my friend "I guess it's better than being compared to Bill Clinton or George W. Bush," no one in our country, including myself, would have had any racial tension about the remark. Most decent Americans rightly fear racist labels, primarily because they are not racists. The very framework of our democracy rests upon the foundation that the health of our nation is of crucial interest to all Americans. Well-meaning Americans who critique any standing President, his policies, his administration, or his party are not racists, but rather are simply participating in the same political system that has been in place for over ten generations. Echoing the message of Booker T. Washington once again, we should desire what is best for all races in America at the exclusion of none.
Dedicated to Booker T. Washington born April 5, 1856