Friday, February 13, 2009

Experience from the USM forum on Politics and Racism

Last night, I was a panelist at a forum on the University of Southern Mississippi's (USM) campus in Hattiesburg. The topic of the forum was Politics and Racism and I was suppose to be on the panel with the mayor of Laurel, MS and the mayor of Hattiesburg, MS, both African-Americans. Neither showed up, but were replaced by a USM history professor and a member of the Hattiesburg mayor's administration.

The crowd was smaller than expected, but students showed up nonetheless, and it was a predominately white audience. Based on the questions that were presented, here was my take on the issue.

I think it is bad in principle to vote for a candidate strictly on race, however that is not a reality in America. Given the historic nature of the first African-American to be on a November ballot for President of the United States, African-Americans were going to support that candidate, regardless of whether or not they thought he was going to win. Fortunately, that candidate was a compelling figure and credible. He offered an agenda that Americans could gravitate to and his political strategy was excellent.

If he was not a legitimate candidate, if Blacks did not think he would have made a good president, he would not have made it out of the Democratic primary, considering the other option that was out there. Blacks have supported white candidates for generations and they were entitled to support one of their own, but that candidate had to be a quality choice, not just a face they could identify with.

With the choice of Michael Steele as the chair of the GOP, as stated in a previous blog, it gives proof that the Black Vote in America is not monolithic. Everyone that is a voter knows for the most part what they want their government to do and they have strong opinions about issues. With Steele at the helm, the GOP will now discover more than ever that certain issues they advocate resonate with African-Americans. It is up to the Republicans to reach out, connect where they can, and sell their ideas to gain support. In Louisiana, that effort seems to be working in the Asian community, as they have elected a Republican governor who is an Indian-American, who had been a U.S. Congressman, and a Republican Congressman who is a Vietnamese-American.

As an African-American candidate, my experience in campaigning was positive. People accepted me as a legitimate candidate and never publicly showed any disdain based on race. However, I think the support for my opponent stemmed on familiarity, and trust around money. The same can be said for those same folks supporting McCain over Obama. Culturally in Mississippi, whites, as a collective, feel more comfortable with one of their own when it comes to issues about the economy. That has to change and hopefully President Obama's ability to navigate the country through this economic crisis will help in that change.

It was noted by one of the panelists that some whites confided that they could not bring themselves to vote for a Black man, but I believe those sad individuals are more of a minority bloc and not indicative of the total population. As long as viable candidates from all ethnic groups present themselves in elections on a consistent basis, public perceptions will eventually change.

My biggest concern after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency was that people, for whatever reason, wanted to suppress discussion about the election, especially in schools where that kind of discussion is imperative. Regardless of how you felt about the outcome, that was the opportune time to create a discourse about the importance of race in our culture. The behavior that was exhibited by educators, under the veil of safety, shows that we, the adults, have a long way to go in reconciling our personal feelings on the subject and developing a safe place within us to discuss openly how we really feel.

Many cite the reaction to the verdict of the O.J. Simpson murder trial as the basis for suppressing discussion, but the exact opposite should have happened. I am still coming to grips with when did that trial turn into a racial bellwether anyway. I am assuming it was when the verdict was announced, but it was no indication before that this would elicit such a divide in the culture. That was an opportunity lost as well in creating a dialogue amongst Blacks and whites.

In the end I expressed guarded optimism in seeing a change in the South, primarily in Mississippi. I hope that my son will see such a change, and that race will not be the primary factor in electing public servants. However, people have to come to grips with their fears and openly discuss them before the foundation for that change can take hold. What I am afraid of is that Obama's election will be considered more of an aberration than a new openness in the political process.

If we have more forums around the state like the one I participated in last night, maybe, just maybe, we might see some change in race relations here in Mississippi, especially in the political process.