Monday, January 19, 2009

That Day Has Come--Almost

No, this is not an "I can't wait for tomorrow post." Tomorrow will come--and I look forward to it as much as anyone--at the same pace it always has.

(Which my Buddhist friends, and Lewis Carroll--jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today--would both remind us is never. But that's another discussion.)

A CNN poll today shows that two thirds of black Americans reported that Martin Luther King Jr's vision for race relations in America has been fulfilled--and that just under a majority of whites feel the same. Perhaps that's more or less the Obama electorate; most blacks and almost a majority of whites. More or less, because black Americans voted for him overwhelmingly--which means that a significant number of blacks who did vote for him don't think that King's vision has been fulfilled. On the flip side, it means that an appreciable number of white Americans who didn't vote for him do feel that King's vision has been fulfilled.

I've no evidence, but my gut-feel is that the black/white dichotomy of this poll is explicable in this manner; roughly 70% of Obama supporters think King's vision's been met. (That, given the scant report of the poll, would be a hair over 30% of all whites, given that 43% of whites voted for him.)

That would give us the number of blacks who do, and it would provide a majority of the whites who agree. The rest, you ask, who are those white people who agree then? Those are whites who would like to believe so--and in most cases probably wanted to believe so--or would have asserted so--before Obama ran for the presidency. Perhaps even before he ran for the Senate.

This has been a thought experiment in how what may look like a coalition may not be; how fractured alliances may really be--and how a poll may tell you something that it really should not.

Ok, so if that's correct... then black Americans are roughly twice as likely to agree that King's vision's been met as whites of a moderate to liberal bent (I'm labeling, and I'm aware of it) are. Or maybe those aren't really whites of a more liberal bent. Or perhaps we're ever so slightly more aware of shadows that still lie over King's vision on the white side of things.

Interracial dating and marriage is more common, but there's still a not-uncommon twitch at first about it. That's actually true for both sides of the color line. But I think the motivations are, on average, slightly different. I think that whites are -- again, on average -- more able and willing to see beyond skin tone to character and the quality of one's heart than they were. But one still hears stories of kids whose parent takes them aside to have a word about this. And, gloriously, one hears more stories of the kid calling the parent on the inconsistency of that word with what those parents have taught those kids for years.

I think we're getting there.

I think there's been great progress.

But I don't think tomorrow came. I don't think we, as a nation, yet judge each other simply on our hearts and characters.

King walked so Obama could run. And yes, Obama won, and that was an amazing, historic moment. Progress indeed. The fact that a black American will sit behind the desk in the Oval Office on Lincoln's 200th birthday is a truly significant thing. The fact that a vast, staggering number of us--of all shades and ethnic origins--think that Obama can, and should make a huge difference for this nation on issues that are real and tangible, that's significant.

But his race was still an issue. His skin tone had to be addressed. It had to be walked around at times and skillfully handled.

There's a tale reported during the election of someone door knocking in Pennsylvania, asking who the residents of one home were voting for, and the answer came back "We're voting for the nigger." I think that captures this limnal moment we're in. We, as a nation, are starting to be able to judge hearts and characters--but we still see skin color, and it still carries assumptions, judgments, fears and prejudices.

That should be no great surprise. Real change comes slow; damnably slow and frustratingly slow. Oliver Wendell Holmes observed "We are all tattooed in our cradles with the beliefs of our tribes." I think we in America are starting to give up on some of those tribal tattoos--and taking up new ones, for good and ill. But many of us still have the old ones, or scars from painfuly excising them--ghosts of tattoos that haunt us.

Tomorrow isn't here yet. But maybe tomorrow. Tomorrow's jam promises to have a rich and wonderful flavor.

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