Barack Obama and Racism

There have been lots of blog worthy events lately, some inspiring and some, well, not so much.

President Barack Obama has not disappointed since taking the Oath of Office on Tuesday. He has signed several Executive Orders which have substantially changed the look of American politics. From suspending the Military Tribunals at Gitmo to lifting the international gag order on abortion funding. His reform of lobbying and statement of ethics is a refreshing change. After eight long years, there is finally a leader in the White House. Changing the culture in Washington cannot be done with a few Executive Orders. Pork barreling and earmarks are common and have been a major part of American politics since the War of Independence. In a political system that celebrates the separation of the executive, legislative and judiciary, where party discipline is not enforced, much legislation is passed as a result of give and take. In the short term, Obama has a lot of political capital and good will from Congress but this may not last, particularly if Congress starts to sense that his actions re impinging on some of their power. One can only hope that Obama, who appears to be a man of principles and ethics, can stay above the fray and lead with moral authority.

A disturbing incident happened in Vancouver as a result of the inauguration of Barack Obama. Apparently three off duty police officers, from three different municipalities in Metro Vancouver, assaulted a man and hurled racial slurs at him. Now, the fact this happened in Metro Vancouver is not a big surprise. Sadly, our police officers are not known for their tolerance towards racial minorities. No amount of training is going to correct this problem. These police officers (and others who attack anyone who is different) believe they have a sense of entitlement to do so. They think that they are better than other people who are of a different race, culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation or gender identity. My sincere hope is for these officers to be charged with a hate crime.

Now, how best to address racism in our society? For me, it comes down to understanding that almost every single Caucasian person who has grown up in Western society is racist. We have benefited directly and indirectly from racist institutions. We have been presumed innocent when others, because of their skin colour, are presumed guilty. People are given more opportunities based on their skin colour or their perceived sexual orientation. Those who fall outside acceptable norms for sexual orientation, gender identity, colour, and ethnicity are not afforded the same opportunities as others. Even worse, these people are often singled out for harsh and unfair treatment from police officers, judges, and other government bureaucrats. People with power in our society are generally not aware that their actions and behaviours are racist and how they reinforce racism in our institutions.

Only through constant examination of one’s values, beliefs and actions can we ever hope to begin to unravel our racist system. As a society, we must be tireless in our efforts to suss out racist thoughts and behaviours from ourselves, our families, our friends and our co-workers. It is very difficult to operate at that level of self-awareness. Moreover, it is ugly, particularly for those of us who work with diverse groups. I see racism alive and well where I work.

We need to eliminate our society’s perception that we are entitled. This attitude is wreaking havoc with the earth and other species who share it with us. The roots of this belief are biblical. Christians are taught to believe that God created the world for them to exploit. Many of our other entitlement beliefs are based in Christianity as well. John Calvin believed in pre-determination which basically states that when we are born it is already determined who is going to heaven and who is going to hell. We know who is going to heaven by how successful they are in this life. Rich people with lots of status are going to heaven and those who are homeless and begging on the streets or anyone living in poverty is going to hell. We see these beliefs played out in how we react to homelessness and poverty, believing that it is somehow their fault. We think that if they would only get a job their lives would be better. As a society that is largely Protestant we are inculcated with these beliefs from a very young age. Have you ever heard of the protestant work ethic?  We learn very quickly who is worthy of respect and who is deserving of our scorn and derision.

We need to take apart these views and attitudes. Understanding their origins are necessary if we are to counter them and begin to have new ways of looking at the world. So what does this mean for the three cops who beat up Phil Khan? They need top be held to account – they must be charged with hate crimes. As a society we must demand more from our governments in terms of taking apart our racist systems, one brick at a time. We must cast light into dark places, places we don’t even want to admit exist. We must not tolerate or give tacit approval to racist thoughts and actions in ourselves and others. We must seek to understand those who are different from us and we must not impose our view of the world on them or judge them by our values.

We have a lot of work to do. I am hopeful that our a new generation of leadership has come to fruition in the United States. I only hope that a great leader for Canada will come soon.

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Published in: on January 25, 2009 at 9:51 pm  Comments (1)  

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  1. I fear for the safety of President Obama. While his election has caused a great deal of hope and excitement worldwide, and many people are thrilled by his “Yes We Can” attitude and seeming ability to take charge, there is the frightening specter of radical racists causing the FBI/CIA to develop bullet resistant clothing for the Commander in Chief of the United States of America.

    Racial hatred is alive and well and living in every neighborhood in the world. Everyone dislikes someone for some reason, real or imagined, or for some slight, no matter how long ago it occurred. It has been thus since time began.

    The KKK, Church of Israel, White Supremacists, Skinheads, Neo Nazis, Christian Identity, Buford Furrow, William Pierce, The Creativity Movement and dozens of other pathologically twisted individuals and groups have stated that no black man can be president. The Secret Service started guarding his family in the spring of 2007 when he announced his intention to run in the leadership race. No other candidate required that level of protection.

    It is my fear that the marginalized in the US, and as a close neighbor tied to the US in so many ways, in Canada, will start to believe change will come more quickly and with less of a fight because there is an African American in the White House. People may think that their fortunes will change. That is simply not the case. A sea change needs to be made before there is anything near equality in either country, and it won’t happen without a huge fight. People with privilege are not going to give up quietly. They will not go gently into that goodnight.


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