Obama in Black & White
by Bruce Fisher
My eldest daughter came home to Buffalo, New York, to cast her first vote for a candidate for president this past November. Afterwards, we drove her the 60 miles back to her college in the village of Geneseo, just east of the Genesee River. That village is not such an old place by New York standards. It is one of hundreds established just after the Revolution, after the expulsion of the Iroquois. Today it is one of those rare tidy villages; most of them are untidy and fading, but Geneseo is prosperous and lovely because the state college there provides a strong economic base that most of the Yankee villages of Upstate New York lack. Just a few miles away in Mount Morris, where our ancestor Stacy Whitney lived, the clapboard houses wilt and sag, and Main Street withers. These places all assumed their shape—clapboard houses, two-story brick and masonry commercial buildings, village commonses, handsome brick courthouses, Protestant churches with five-story steeples—in Stacy Whitney’s boyhood in the mid-19th century. These were places shaped by the Civil War. Ours is a family defined by that war. Stacy Whitney, my mother’s grandfather’s father, left Mount Morris in 1861 to volunteer for the Union Army. Now, five generations later, a child of his line is nearby. Now, more than 140 years after he returned to New York State from the war, a child of his line helped elect a black man president.
North from Geneseo and Mount Morris, also on the Genesee River, up near Lake Ontario where it widens and spills into Irondequoit Bay, is the city of Rochester. Rochester is the city from which my father’s great-grandfather, Richard Hollis, rode to Gettysburg with the 9th New York Cavalry. He, too, fought for the Union in the Civil War. He saw its end at Appomattox Courthouse, where he witnessed the traitor Lee’s surrender.
Farther west, south of Buffalo and close to the Lake Erie shore, my mother lives in a clapboard house in a Yankee village that is just up the road from where her grandmother’s father, Richard Waller, operated his smithy after his service in the 112th New York Infantry. Waller’s regiment went all the way to Florida fighting rebels. Just three weeks before the surrender, Waller was briefly a captive of North Carolinians who apprehended him and his comrades on a foraging run near the Neuse River.
Buffalo newspapers of the 1850s and 1860s tell us what these men knew about the war they set out from here to fight. We can only surmise what their private thoughts were. The political messaging of the times was, however, unequivocal, because they were from the hottest of abolitionist hotbeds. Every enlistee knew, because everybody in those days knew, that the war for which they volunteered was about their own freedom, but they also knew that they were going off to fight to secure the freedom of the slaves. The slaves’ freedom was important to them, because where there was slave labor, free labor was endangered. I’ve read the histories of each of their regiments, and have written about events of the 1850s in Rochester and Buffalo, where great dramas of the Underground Railroad occurred, dramas that were well-known in the newspapers and that shaped the pro-Lincoln, pro-Seward, pro-abolitionism politics of the day. All available evidence demonstrates that our ancestors were William Seward Republicans in 1860, in the year when everybody thought it would be Seward of New York, the radical abolitionist, who would be the Republican candidate for president. When our ancestors set out for war, they knew what they were doing, why, and for whom.
Perhaps our ancestors were more concerned with the fate of the Union than they were with the fate of the enslaved. Perhaps they were bored with being young men in small-town Upstate New York. Perhaps they believed that there was personal glory to be gained by going to war. Yet withal, the rhetorical context of the small-town regiments of these Yankee New Yorkers was abolitionist, free-soil, free-labor, Protestant, and surprisingly hot, or perhaps the better word is zealous, on the question of personal liberty.
Growing up in small-town Upstate New York in the 1950s and early 1960s, I was frequently reminded of my ancestors’ service in the Revolution, and in the War of 1812, but most especially in the Civil War. War was the marker of our family’s generations, and the narrative of war was the story of American rightness, or more precisely, of American rightfulness. Of course, World War II was what we boys played when we played at war. I knew where my uncle and my dad had fought Japanese in their own rightful war, and though they were both gone, the elder women of our family explained, as did our community in its ceremonies and parades, that they’d joined that effort and fought on Iwo Jima and in the Solomon Islands in nothing less than a fight for our freedom. Everybody knew this. And because of the peculiar geography of Western New York, I knew that this was not just a history of white guys, but also of Indians, because it was to Western New York that the Senecas of the Genesee had been expelled after the Revolution. So many Senecas came to our church, and we to theirs on their reservation only four miles from home, and to the American Legion Post across the street from our white Yankee clapboard house, the post my grandfather ran, serving white men and Indians the same small glasses of beer and the same Friday night fish fries. My uncle had gone to the Marines in 1943, turning down an opportunity to go to West Point, and he’d served with a Seneca leader’s son in the 5th Marines. The Seneca boy and the white boy had taken the same bus from the same town to the same enlistment center and gone to Parris Island together, then on to Camp Lejeune, to Camp Pendleton, and then to the Pacific. I don’t know what became of that particular Marine from the Cattaraugus Reservation, but I do know that when my uncle returned from the war, and from a year of serving in the occupation force in Japan, he’d reconnected. He went to Columbia, the first of his line to go to college, where he and another local boy, a white boy, the son of the minister of our church, together in that year of 1947 joined the Columbia University chapter of the NAACP.
Wars for justice were the family story. My late uncle’s membership in the fight against what my grandmother called “bigotry” was part of the story, too. Of living black Americans, though, I was like every other Yankee kid in the Yankee village of clapboard houses: We had no knowledge of black Americans except from television. In our town of 1,500 souls, the Civil Rights movement was something that happened on the evening news. Only in 1967, when I left town for high school in Buffalo, that I saw black people on the street, and rode with them on the bus, then met individual African-American persons as classmates in my new school.
It was a racial idyll, but not necessarily for the best of reasons. The shock of being in classrooms with people with more melanin than me was a small part of the terrifying newness of the school as a whole. To my 13-year-old mind, the real shock was the overwhelming and focusing reality of the burden of homework we were expected to do.
We were stupid Americans in a school that had been transplanted from a pre-World War II Europe, where everybody knew how to speak at least three languages, where everybody knew how to play soccer, which I’d never even heard of, and where everybody but me knew that the first rule of life was to cease talking when the teacher entered the room, stand up and say, all together, “Laudetur Jesus Christus” to the priest with the incomprehensible Central European accent, who would shortly begin lecturing on classic texts everyone but me had already read.
Being a newbie defined everything. Even the black kids in the school were all veterans. They knew Latin. They could understand the priests’ accents. Racial differences among students were as nothing when, in the first week, we newcomers were all subjected to one priest’s withering contempt for our lack of Latin, and to another’s thrown-up hands at our incomprehension of physics, astronomy, calculus, stoichiometry, and most of what he’d just said. Our chief refuge as students was to huddle together as fellow sufferers at the hands of people who sounded to us like Bela Lugosi’s Dracula. Of much greater interest to us were the usual issues of adolescence, like aspects of personality, and the amount of one’s pocket change, and whether one had cigarettes—that’s what mattered in that ecosystem. I argued with students over what we were reading, and traded sandwiches with them at lunch, and played touch football between classes, and snuck smokes with the rest of them. My recollection of going to school with soccer-playing, multilingual Hungarians, with Greek Orthodox kids with different holidays from us, with blacks, with girls, with Jews, and with two tough-guy Irish kids who alternately threatened me and wheedled me for change consists of all of the above, and in about that order of importance. I can’t remember the black kids standing out at all, except that the black kids and I were native speakers of English. So along with them and the Irishmen, we were more or less the regular people at that place, because none of us had came from either a displaced persons camp or from a castle recently seized by the Communists. We were just Americans.
* * *
But you know what comes next. Our idyll was not the world of the late 1960s.
We were on the ninth-grade field trip. Thirty or so 13- and 14-year-olds, a taciturn Hungarian priest, and a married pair of teachers had ridden a yellow bus down to the Everglades in the spring of 1968. On the day in April 1968 after Martin Luther King, Jr. was killed, we were driving toward a Catholic school in Atlanta on whose gymnasium floor we were planning to sleep, white girls and black girls and Jewish girls on the Mrs. Teacher side of the gym, us heathen savage boys watched over by Father Kovari and Mr. Teacher on our side.
There was trouble in America as we drove north. The city of Atlanta was burning that night, as in a war, but I hadn’t ever seen a war, so it was like a movie to me. I thought at first that it was a bunch of slag-pours at a long line of steel plants, because back home in Buffalo, nighttime was when they poured slag onto the ground, right at the shore of the lake, and when we drove home at night to our Yankee clapboard village, we would watch the slag-pours. It was like a lava flow, and there was fire. But it wasn’t steel mills in Atlanta. I remember wondering why Father Kovari, who had spent the trip in a t-shirt, was opening up his suitcase and putting his priest collar on as we sat in traffic. There was a line of cars ahead of us, but it wasn’t just traffic. We looked out the windows and saw a lot of fire, and it wasn’t far away. We were being stopped at a made-up roadblock, a couple of cars narrowing the road, by some white men with clubs, men who wanted to come onto the bus to see if we had any Negroes with us. We did.
I didn’t really understand what was going on when our chaperone, the Hungarian-born math teacher, bounded out of the bus, speaking sharply in Hungarian to Father Kovari, who shut the door tight behind him. The teacher went outside alone. It didn’t go well. He took abuse from the men outside for refusing to let the thugs come up the steps and into the bus itself. It was unpleasant to look out the window and see a man pushing him while other men with clubs or ax-handles stood by. Then the teacher’s wife was yelling, too, and kids were moving around in the bus.
Somehow, my pack-rat mother kept my notes about all this. I did not know then all that was going on, but I know now that April 1968 was only a dozen years after the math teacher had done some street-fighting, in faraway Budapest, when he’d been a schoolboy of 14 or 15, just like me. I know now that our math teacher hadn’t battled freckled bullies, but that he had hurled cobblestones at Soviet tanks, and had been shot at by uniformed soldiers who shot other civilians dead, and I know that he’d escaped the police dogs chasing him when he barely outran them at the Austrian border, back in November 1956, after the tanks had crushed the Hungarian Revolution. In Atlanta that night, I knew that he was in a confrontation, and made notes on it. I sensed that he was being brave. Now, in retrospect, I am awed that his bravery was so instantaneous, and so effective: The Negro-hunters didn’t get on the bus, because he wouldn’t let them. Meanwhile, we kids had followed Father Kovari’s instructions, and had hidden Karen, Beverly, Michellem and John under our duffel bags in the center aisle. (The priests of our school were allies of two Righteous Gentiles who made Buffalo their home, Dr. Clara Ambrus, who lived two doors from school, and Tibor Baransky, whose sons went to our school. Those folks got Yad Veshem recognition for hiding Jews from the Nazis.) Luckily, it was dark, late, and hard to see, but we pressed ourselves up against the windows, everybody whispering, wanting to keep those guys from seeing in. Luckily, there were cars behind us. They waved us through. My notes don’t record whether we slept on the gym floor that night, or kept driving.
* * *
The late Harold Washington, whose 1983 election as mayor of Chicago changed the city's racial politics.
I was a reporter in Chicago in the early 1980s when I did a ward-by-ward count of the black voting-age population, guesstimating like crazy because Census tracts and ward boundaries didn’t mesh well, and personal computers did not yet exist. Congressman Harold Washington later told me that my report, with the big chart enumerating the racial count in each ward, convinced him to run for mayor, and he did. Washington won after a big voter-registration drive not only on the black South Side and on the black West Side but in all those wards that everybody just assumed were solidly Richie Daley or Jane Byrne territory but which my report had identified as having small but significant populations of voting-age blacks. Washington’s win in 1983 was such a validating event in my life, though I was just an observer, that I showed up at Joe and Ann Dowling’s wedding in Queens with blue Harold Washington pins as my gifts to them, which they found incomprehensible. Nobody outside of Chicago much cared that a black man had been elected mayor of America’s second city.
Later, my old Hyde Park neighbor Carol Moseley Braun was my client when she ran and won as the first black woman member of the US Senate, in 1992. Her South African boyfriend fired all the white guys in the campaign after we’d won the primary, which was the real contest; she had no use for me as a consultant afterward, and I’ve not spoken to her since.
But before then, in the late 1970s and early 1980s in Chicago, I’d been so fascinated by the racial divide in Chicago that I’d decided to flout it. I reveled in being the only white reporter who regularly went to Packinghouse Hall, the union office across the street from the notoriously violent Robert Taylor Homes housing project. I’d been the first white reporter to go south of the Midway, crossing that border and leaving Hyde Park for the mysterious, unknown land beyond 61st Street, to go to then-Congressman Harold Washington’s office. I’d gone to dinner with the egregious Gus Savage after he’d won his Congressional seat the same year Washington had won his, and had listened to Savage excoriate me for my racism. But Gus Savage excoriated every white person as a racist. I didn’t take it personally. I understood it. To him, to others, to the community, to the world, the racial divide in Chicago was everything, everything.
Once again, just as in high school, I found myself living in an idyll, which to some extent remains an idyll. It is called Hyde Park, and it is where Barack Obama’s house is, and where he will live when he is not in the White House. This zone of Chicago is where the races mix, but of course the racial tension was impossible to ignore, and my time there was a time of highly publicized incidents of black-on-white sexual violence near the University of Chicago—violence that was made literature by Richard Wright in his novel Native Son.
Hyde Park was the neighborhood and the early 1980s the time of the famous University of Chicago professor and writer Saul Bellow’s tough new novel starring race and crime, The Dean’s December, based on local events. It was the place just down 55th Street from Washington Park, from scenes of Wright’s Native Son, and in that place and time, Bigger Thomas seemed not to be a fictional character. It was also the place where we adventurous white 20-somethings drank beer at actual blues bars, the Checkerboard and others, and went to the Maxwell Street market on weekend mornings in Jewtown to hear the blues, the genuine blues: Junior Wells and Buddy Guy, Sunnyland Slim, KoKo Taylor, Little Walter. I was adamant about seeing them in the flesh, before they passed away, because Howlin’ Wolf had died the year after I’d arrived, and I’d missed him.
Race in Chicago then was everywhere, everything, every conflict, even anomalous ones, and there were plenty of anomalies Before I got the reporting job, I’d worked as a typesetter at a shop that had the black Muslim newspaper as a client. Four or five of us white guys and a lone black guy did the typesetting and paste-up for Muhammad Speaks. I don’t know how many times I either typed or corrected page proofs for Wallace Deen Muhammad’s column before technology changed and they moved their business, and the organization changed and the group split into the Farrakhan faction and the mainstream American Muslim Mission with its big white mosque down on Cottage Grove. I knew where Elijah Muhammad had lived and where his son and heir still lived, slightly north of 51st Street in the curious biracial luxury of Kenwood, which is where Obama’s house is; nearby, Muhammad Ali had his home, and his green Rolls Royce, in which he cruised the streets of Hyde Park, enjoying his celebrity, giving occasional lifts—quite friendly and innocent—to some of my lucky friends. Race? What about celebrity, and money? Money defined that territory more than race; 47th Street a few blocks away was poor, bluesy, alcoholic, burned-out, but south of 47th, in Kenwood and in Hyde Park, there was peace, diversity, calm commerce, famous faces, a resilient and accessible prosperity in the environs of the great university. But there was cognitive dissonance, too: A friend of mine, a former University of Chicago political science student who wrote about Hobbes and Rousseau and the notions of the social contract and how all those notions were believed by those old philosophers to have brought order to natural man, which is to say, the warring humanity of the pre-civilized world, told me that one of his University of Chicago professors referred to the poor black area north of 47th Street as “the state of nature.”
The peculiar culture of Hyde Park, so student, so Jewish, so anti-downtown, was where such unforgiving advocates of ruthless order mixed with apologists for criminals. There had long been a notorious black gang in the area. It was variously known, after Blackstone Avenue, as the Blackstone Rangers, then the Blackstone Nation, then the Black P-stone Nation and its further iterations. I was a reporter, and I had no illusions. Whatever its name, the organization was a criminal enterprise that dealt drugs and hurt people. All the members of the gang were black, but so were almost all of the victims. The apologists were some combination of deluded, cynical, or politicized. It really was simple, and it still is. Gangsters make life hellish for everybody around them, and are the principal excuse for white racism.
The conversation about race then was, in large part dishonestly but in all aspects importantly, about crime. Nobody white would knowingly choose to take the El from Marshall Field’s department store on State Street to 55th Street, and then take the bus east to Hyde Park or west to the Lithuanian delicatessens on the Lithuanian side of Marquette Park. Everybody white, and many blacks too, took the Illinois Central to Hyde Park. Only if one were a big, athletic, pissed-off 20-something with all kinds of ancient violence in his soul would one put on a face, and pretend to be nonchalant and walk east from the El stop at 55th Street, inviting something to happen. Because in one’s six-foot athletic body that sometimes happened to get into saloon scrapes, walking through Washington Park, which was and remains the dividing line between what the older folks still in those days called Bronzeville on the west and the Hyde Park enclave on the east, there was a legend waiting to unfold. It wasn’t clear what that legend would have been about. I never found out, either, but I heard the ribbing or incredulity of blacks and whites at the college-kid bar Jimmy’s. “Whatsa matta witch you, boy, gotta death wish?” Maxine would ask. She would shake her head, and when her shift was over, we’d drink beers, and then her young clients would walk through the sub-zero Chicago winter nights over to Ribs ’n Bibs on 53rd Street, to pick up orders of fried chicken and racks of ribs in that hot, hot sauce.
About that time, Barack Obama arrived in Chicago to start work as a community organizer. About that time, as Ronald Reagan was elected, as the steel plants of the South Side were suddenly shuttered, Chicago’s conversation about race was also about politics.
After Harold Washington became Chicago's mayor, black nationalist radio host and newspaper columnist Lu Palmer (pictured) challenged union man Charles Hayes for Washington's former seat in the US House of Representatives. Hayes won.
The year after Harold Washington won the mayoralty, in the scorching summer of 1984, the old union man Charlie Hayes was the leading candidate to replace Washington in the special election for Washington’s seat in the House of Representatives. (Bobby Rush, the former Black Panther who beat Barack Obama’s challenge a decade ago, still holds that seat.) In 1984 Hayes faced a tough challenge from a black nationalist radio host named Lu Palmer, who had no use for whites, and who had made a broadcast career out of explaining that position. Black intellectuals Robert Starks and Conrad Worrill condemned the Hayes candidacy, which relied on Washington’s coalition of liberal whites and a solid black base. And of course Gus Savage had no use for Hayes, either.
One breathlessly hot day in that summer campaign, I happened to be standing at the start of a parade, immediately adjacent to Palmer’s open car, there to grab some quotes and then head back to the cool shelter of the newspaper. I knew all the candidates except Palmer. There was some delay, and we were just standing there with nothing to do, every man Jack of us pouring sweat. Palmer was sitting on some sort of elevated platform on a truck bed, looking uncomfortable. I looked up at him and just blurted out about how we were both geniuses to be working in conditions like this, hey Lu? Without a second’s hesitation, piercing the veil, Palmer agreed. I don’t recall exactly what he said, but it was just the response of a normal person, not the made-up person that was his race-focused radio persona. He might have even used bad language to describe the weather. Suddenly, white reporter and black candidate became just two uncomfortable guys waiting for the damned parade to get going. Palmer said something about he thought he’d escaped such conditions when he’d moved north. It was enough to keep me from rushing back to the office. So I walked along the parade route with him, and when there were gaps in the crowd, we talked about the race and about race. We speculated about how large a factor the whites of Hyde Park would be in a Congressional election district that was more than 75 percent black. We talked about the political nightmare in which Washington had become embroiled downtown. We talked about Ronald Reagan. He and I would chat frequently after that. His radio persona, of course, never changed. It was his franchise.
Being white, it was inevitable that I was accused of racism. I was a writer, and I wrote about politics, and politics is about disagreement, and it was Chicago, so the ad hominem was ubiquitous. None of the disagreements involving white candidates and black candidates were fair or issue-based, because what was there to disagree about other than race? The language of victimization was a commonplace. Got a gripe? Blame the white guy. Lose the race? White conspiracy. Win the race? Time for redress against all whites.
The Washington victory in 1983 was the genuine precursor to the Obama victory, in that everybody in town went back to work the morning after the election; democracy happened, folks popped corks, then life went on. Of course there was a split in the Chicago City Council, with racial posturing and endless rhetoric. But to sum up some very complicated history and politics, the split of the 50 council members into the 29 versus the 21 was more about bad-boy, old-style machine politics, patronage, and posturing than it was about race. Race was the excuse, but Harold Washington, in order to build his coalition, had had to leave his roots as a creature of the late Mayor Richard Daley’s machine, and had campaigned against patronage. Washington’s fight with Eddie Vrdolyak was over the spoils of victory, and Washington thundered and kept his patronage-hungry black councilmen in line by going to the “base,” as the black neighborhoods were called, and threatening and reminding other elected officials about how things were going to be, and letting his formidable power over the language alternately calm and excite his crowds of supporters and activists—who, of course, all wanted patronage.
But the vocabulary of conspiracy and of victimization was widely shared in that city where Martin Luther King, Jr., had been jeered and worse over in Marquette Park only 15 years before. A very smart historian for whom I wrote a paper or two when I was a graduate student—a paper on the self-named “New Negro” movement of early 20th century Chicago—was convinced that the two daily papers intentionally used unflattering photographs of Harold Washington, and dismissed my suggestions, based on my experience as an editor, that one uses a horizontal shot when the slot is wider than tall, and a vertical shot when the slot is north and south, and it’s a miracle if the photo editor or anybody else does more than check to see that the image is in focus. But my professor wouldn’t hear of it. He couldn’t hear of it. He, and every black Chicagoan, was too protective of Washington, and tended a deep well of anger on his behalf.
* * *
I heard that anger when I would take my notebook and my tape recorder to the Saturday morning meetings of Operation PUSH, where Jesse Jackson and so many of his fellow South Side pastors held forth. These were community meetings, political meetings, mini-rallies, sometimes press conferences, but mostly an amalgam, with some churchly doings framing it all—quite different from Yankee clapboard-village Episcopalian services and tea with the vicar afterward.
On Saturday mornings in the early 1980s, I walked west to the edge of Washington Park and north along Martin Luther King, Jr., boulevard, and sat my lonely Caucasian self in a pew of what had only a few years before been a great synagogue, and what was then, and now, the Reverend Jesse Jackson’s place. There I imbibed that language of protest, and witnessed many a loud outburst as scornful or hurtful or hurt as any of Jeremiah Wright’s. But I also found myself in the home of the parable, and of the rhythmic performance from the sacred text, and of the homely analogy to rural practices of the common Southern home, and in those years of frequent Saturday morning sessions of two hours or more apiece, I heard much more than protest. I heard English informed by Caxton’s bible, and by Shakespeare. I heard a cultural conservatism in this sense: These descendants of slaves, liberated and moved north to Chicago, emphatically embraced an oratorical tradition of their ancestors’ making, which was partly a tradition of my own ancestors’ making, and they measured the worth of their orators’ performances by how well and truly the speakers demonstrated knowledge of the text, surely, but also by how capably the exegists handled literature, law, Latin, Greek, poetry, and more. The tradition of learned speaking, of the declamation—that antique American discourse of the educated, pre-electronic culture of the 19th century—was on display at Operation PUSH on Saturday mornings in Chicago in the early 1980s. But it was on display to the folks from the neighborhood. It was the home culture of the black church, there for the body of the faithful and of the community. It was not some performance at a cultural festival, and it was most assuredly not a performance for the benefit of uncomprehending reporters from downtown.
But that’s how those utterances were portrayed for the wider audience of the regional media market. Downtown reporters, who were occasional intruders into this community space, would roll up in their vans and trundle their cameras and microphones down to the front of the pews and stay for a bit and then leave. Reporters then were the unschooled simplifiers that they were and still are, not a bunch of history majors or classics or English majors or anthropologists there to hear and note and nod. Reporters were unattuned to issues of grave importance to that audience—like a certain pastor’s insistence on referencing only and solely the Old Testament prophets whenever he thundered on about justice, so different than Jackson’s appeals from the New Testament—“Did you hear Reverend Clay Shaw talk about Jeremiah this morning, but Jesse sticking with John? Did you hear that?” was the conversation in the pew, for the difference between the pastors was the subject of much colloquy among the grayer heads in the pews, because there are cognoscenti and connoisseurs of the discipline of preaching, and an understanding that the preacher who references the Hebrew prophets is sending a different message altogether from the one who cites the language of love and of forgiveness from the New Testament. But this essential difference was entirely lost on the downtown reporters. They literally could not see what was happening in front of them. They were there, with the enhanced sensory equipment of the camera and the microphone and the recorder, but were blind and deaf to all that. Their selections for broadcast and quotation were ever of the angriest, the “blackest” oratory—the growling preacher, the call-and-response from the crowd, the strongest finales, the loudest ovations when the subject was justice for folks stuck in rotten public housing or folks losing their jobs at Wisconsin Steel, that sorry, suddenly shuttered plant among whose betrayed ex-workers the young Obama started working just about then. The story that the media told was about black anger.
* * *
The story is about to be about black, and general, celebration. My kids have never seen any of that angry racial strife of the anguished years of Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, nor will they. Now, here in our urban idyll of race-neutrality or race-commonality, my kids in the first decade of the new millennium are coming to consciousness long after all that—long after the civil rights war I’d but glimpsed at night in Atlanta, long after the segregated but celebrated culture of the blues had so brightly flourished in Chicago in the 1960s, long after the school-desegregation decisions had prompted white flight from the Northern cities in the 1970s, long after Harold Washington’s stuttering but triumphant rise to storied success in the 1980s, even after their dad’s role in Carol Moseley Braun’s great triumph in 1992 and after her almost immediate post-inaugural missteps once she got to the Senate. What they missed was all that had come before the long emergence of Obama; they’d missed, too, the great hope for a University of Chicago-educated African-American woman from Hyde Park, and they’d missed the great let-down. Here, now, my kids are growing up in a world where people succeed or fail. My kids are color-blind in ways that are striking and joyful to me, yet everywhere in our lives the racial divide yet yawns. It yawns in the very landscape, our very streets. It is still everything.
* * *
I’ve been struck by how my deep personal experience in the empowerment struggles of blacks and of Native Americans has given me a perspective that my white friends find incomprehensible. I’ve confronted pride, jealousy, smallness, psychological gamesmanship, and, yes, sometimes greatness and sometimes even deeply moral behavior, whereas my white friends don’t like or want that kind of complexity, preferring instead the warmer glow of appreciation for the symbolism we all see now that Obama has been elected. Our raveled national sleeve is now knit, they think.
Some cannot fathom why I, the veteran of the medicine lodge rituals of the northern plains, a onetime frequent sweat lodge man, too, a white guy who can actually, if clumsily, speak a native North American language—why I would be such a racist as to have taken the municipality I served into federal district court to stop the Senecas from opening a gambling casino in downtown Buffalo. I’ve actually been asked, “Why are you being such a racist?” Sometimes it is tiresome to try to explain. Sometimes one just cannot rebut the charge of racism if one is white and male. One sighs, and hopes that the court case gets decided the right way.
Now, perhaps, there will be fewer occasions for such accusations, because so many white Americans voted to elect a black man our president. Not enough, mind you; Obama did not win a majority of white votes. The white candidate won most of the white votes. And no doubt when Republicans oppose President Obama, there will be black Americans who shout as angrily and as loudly as any old Civil Rights-era protester, in the hurt and angry language of protest, that the merits of the issue are meaningless, that opposition to the black president is exclusively a matter of racism, that Republicans are racist, no matter that ancient dead Republicans from near Geneseo and Rochester and Fredonia went into battle to liberate themselves and slaves, too.
But yes, I too share the peculiar American relief that finally, after all the insanity of hundreds of years of race-based abuse, our riven country has a black leader who is a calm, intelligent, careful speaker; that finally, the amended Constitution’s principles of representation are realized, and the old, outdated, superseded Constitution’s race-based faults are utterly obsolete; that finally the politics of division and resentment are trampled asunder. So my American narcissism is good. I smile. O virtuous nation ours!
So now what?
I write in my weekly columns about the policy choices that the tough-minded no-drama Obama will have to courageously make in order to reverse the decades of rot that racism caused in our old city of Buffalo and in every other northern city. I note with sadness that on the day of Obama’s victory, a black female judge who lives right near the Obama home on the South Side of Chicago was muscled hard and injured by a young black man who stole her pocketbook; this behavior is a reality for cities, a problem for whose solution there is now a more searing urgency.
Reversing the rot will require courageous desegregation; courageous re-urbanization; courageous confrontation of the lingering anger of the pummeled Right to make of this country a more peaceful and just place. There is so much anguishing poverty right around me—my kids walk to school past abandoned houses, on streets walked by men who have been unemployed or marginally employed most of their lives, in an area where almost 50 percent of the black male workforce is either out of work, in jail, disabled, or too old to work and thus serve as exemplar to the school kids. There is so much urban dysfunction here and in the other Great Lakes cities that solving the problem will require an assault on the legal and economic structures that got those places and people abandoned.
Is Obama powerful enough? Is he focused enough? Brave enough?
One hopes that the answer is yes. One hopes that the forces of the market, of lobbies, of international economics, and of armies identified and yet unidentified will yield to the power of a newly empowered virtue, a civic virtue. Cities are, after all, where humanity’s achievement of civilization has occurred.
One hopes. Meanwhile, I applaud the fortunate confluence of events—a dismal incumbent, a disciplined candidate, a competent street organization, a political success, and, for as long as he succeeds, a good feeling abroad in our land and validation of what Abraham Lincoln called “our best selves.”
May vanity, arrogance, and narcissism not impede Barack Obama. I am inclined to believe that he will do well, disinclined to believe that he is a miracle-worker, able to imagine him succeeding, or failing, as a man—no modifier. That would be his achievement, I think, and ours.
Bruce Fisher is visiting professor of economics and finance at Buffalo State College, where he directs the Center for Economic and Policy Studies.