On Al Jazeera this weekend, a very interesting debate took place hosted by Avi Lewis regarding The Color of Recession. According to statistics, the unemployment rate for minorities is around 34%, while unemployed white Americans are only at 7.2%, says the NY Times.
The programme featured four panellists who debated the issue of race, including ‘Jesse Jackson of the Rainbow Coalition; Rosa Clemente, an activist and former Green Party Vice Presidential candidate; Linda Chávez, director of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity and the Reverend Greylan Hagler of the United Church of Christ.’
The discussion focused a great deal on the Obama administration, at times criticizing the new president’s failure to focus on helping minorities, who have been affected more strongly by the economic downturn. Referring to Obama’s focus as a ‘colour blind approach’, Lewis puts the question to the panellists: Is Obama letting down people of colour?
The answers, surprisingly, are more varied than one might expect. Rosa Clemente, for example, was dissatisfied with Obama’s actions so far, criticizing that the President has not focused his energies on minority unemployment issues. Linda Chavez agreed, but also added that Obama is offering the ‘same old solutions’ to the economic crisis. She believes this will only cause more problems for America in the future.
Reverend Jackson, who in many ways represents more traditional ideas about racial inequality, didn’t show any great opposition to President Obama. Jackson did, however, disapprove of banks investing from the ‘top down’ rather than the ‘bottom up.’
Obama’s only supporter seemed to be Reverend Hagler, who suggested that people support the President rather than holding him to ridiculous standards. He reminded the audience that Obama is a president, who must answer to and work with other groups such as the legislative branch. ‘He is not a king,’ said Hagler.
Though the discussion centred around the effects of the economic crisis on minorities, there was ultimately an argument about reparations to people of colour. Should reparations be made? All but one believed there should be. Chavez maintained that the generation of minorities existing in America today are so disconnected from those who suffered from racial discrimination that there would be no point to making reparations.
What was most disturbing about the discussion is that in almost everyway it seemed to undermine what President Obama is trying to do. And what is Obama’s goal? Is it simply to get a nation through one of the worse economic crises it has ever experienced? Is it to end a war, while ensuring that Afghanistan is not left in such a weak state that the Taliban can easily overtake it again? While all of these goals are no doubt part of Obama’s plans, it becomes clear from his campaign that a loftier goal is in place: Saving a nation from their own short-sidedness in regards to race.
So much of Obama’s presidential campaign appears to have focused on race. And it seems clear that Obama understood what Europe has known for many years; Race is America’s greatest problem. The children of oppressors and the oppressed have been taught by their ancestors that race is indeed, a huge subject and should be treated as such. And while this poses no problem for the American who is accustomed to making race a very big issue, it consistently undermines the great cultural theorists of this generation who wisely maintain that the only way to overcome racism, sexism and the classification of ‘Otherness’ is by giving absolutely no respect to the ideology of classification. In other words, ignoring the idea of race forces or at least impels others to deal with a person’s humanity rather than their skin colour. It is a reminder of that which makes us similar, rather than what makes us different.
President Obama is, no doubt, a part of this new school of thought at least to some degree. While he does not ignore race, he certainly has committed himself to making decisions that do not focus on the race of the American in crisis. His proposals for healthcare, economic solutions and war will likely not include reparations to any race in particular.
Is this a good plan of action? It may be more accurate to say that it is a necessary plan of action. Who among us wants a leader, who makes decisions based on skin colour? It was morally wrong when it was done by those who formerly held positions of power. It would be wrong now. In fact, it might further destroy the task of healing the wounds between races in America. The ‘what about me’ syndrome exists on both sides.
People are discriminated against for all sorts of reasons including gender and race. It is ridiculous to believe that an epoch of racial prejudice has not been passed down to both black and white Americans the way family heirlooms are passed down to grandchildren. Why would you believe even the most righteous of equality leaders over your own parents unless you were ready to challenge everything you had ever been taught? Yet, it is equally ridiculous to believe that the consequence of such programming does not also include a fundamental fear and mistrust of anyone who is different. Even small children teach us this in grade school where the slightest abnormality causes a student to be the focus of ridicule and cruelty.
Still, what is crucial here is whether or not Obama’s regime of ‘colour blindness’ seeks to be an example by teaching people to function beyond the idea of race. If the goal of the current administration is to eliminate the need for classification, the very idea of discrimination, therefore, is called into question. After all, is it productive to use classification as a defence? For example, is it effective for someone to say, ‘He is treating me inappropriately because I am Indian and a woman?’ Or is it more effective to say, ‘He is treating me inappropriately?’ How much more useful would it be to focus on the issue of mistreatment, rather than the issue of race or gender?
There is no doubt that if Obama is a student of the school of thought that seeks to take the focus from classifications, therefore eliminating the power of ‘Otherness’, he has his work cut out for him. Enticing people from a lifetime of programming is not something that can be done in four or even eight terms of a presidency. Yet, Obama’s biggest followers have often interpreted his message as one of hope. And since a minority has managed to obtain the highest position in America, then we can only imagine that change is possible and that perhaps, Americans are on the cusp of that change.
For NY Times statistics on unemployment in America, please go to http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/11/06/business/economy/unemployment-lines.html