When former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke launched an organization 30 years ago called the National Association for the Advancement of White People, everyone loudly said that it was racist for such an organization to exist.
I had been raised with very liberal attitudes about race, so Duke’s group held no appeal for me, but I was quietly puzzled anyway. Why was it racist for whites to have an organization that pursued things they perceived to be in their best interests, but it was noble and right for blacks to have the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to advance their interests?
I didn’t say anything at the time, partly because I didn’t want to support an admitted racist and partly because I didn’t want to ask a question that polite people clearly didn’t ask. But it was my first realization that standards of what was acceptable are very different depending on what your skin color is.
I was reminded of that again Sunday when I saw some video from Barack Obama’s campaign announcing the launch of African Americans for Obama. (See video below.) Can you imagine the formation of White People for Ron Paul or European Americans for Mitt Romney? Representatives of the black “civil rights industry” would be frothing at the mouth to denounce them. People in the media would be apoplectic with righteous rage. Everybody would denounce such groups for white people as racist. So why is it acceptable when a black politician does it?
According to the campaign’s statement, blacks are invited to get involved by attending “organizing workshops” at black colleges and they can also become “congregation captains,” to do their bit to organize their black churches to turn out for Obama. (I’m disgusted when black churches allow themselves to be used for political purposes, but I’m equally disgusted when white churches do the same — as a church in Georgia did for Newt Gingrich Sunday. For a church to give time in the pulpit to any candidate for political purposes is to misunderstand the purpose of the church.)
In 2008, roughly 96 percent of blacks who went to the polls voted for Obama, so it’s a pretty safe bet that a sizable percentage of them were voting for him just because he was black. Anecdotally, I’ve talked to quite a few blacks who registered for the first time just so they could vote for Obama — not because they loved his positions, but because they wanted to vote for a black man.
In Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, he said it shouldn’t be this way. He said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” So which is the standard for today? Are we supposed to be judging people as individuals? Or are we supposed to be engaging in identity politics and voting certain ways because we have certain skin color?
About blacks’ desires to vote for a black person, some people would say this is natural, because people want to associate with those more like themselves. They’re proud of people who are of the same group they’re from. They see some of themselves in those who are more similar to themselves. All of those things are true, but you can’t have it both ways.
You can’t tell white people that they have to be held to one color-blind standard while black people are held to an entirely different one which condones race-conscious decision-making.
The truth is that we’re probably never going to reach a point of a color-blind world unless races become so mixed that there aren’t any racial differences left. (If that does happen, we’ll find some other basis upon which to discriminate, whether it’s against left-handed people or those with attached earlobes or some other triviality. That’s just the way humans are. We’re tribal.) In the meantime, the best we can do is articulate the goal of being able to see everyone as an individual, regardless of his skin color or anything else, but understand that it’s not going to happen in many cases.
I don’t object if every black wants to vote for a black person as president. I don’t object that a lot of Southern Baptists supported Jimmy Carter in 1976 just because he was of their denomination. I don’t object that many Catholics were rabid supporters of John F. Kennedy in 1960 because he was one of them.
So I don’t object to Obama organizing black voters to turn out for him. It’s smart politics that takes advantage of something that helped him win four years ago. The only thing I ask is that these same people understand that other people are going to be similarly inclined to associate with people more like themselves.
Black leaders can either accept the reality that most of us are going to give preference to people more like us (at least unconsciously) or they can demand that everything be color-blind. It’s one or the other. They can’t have it both ways.