The 2008 general election campaign brought America its first African-American president. Barack Obama’s election will forever stand in the hearts and minds of Americans as a moment of progress. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech less than fifty years ago, to put the achievement in perspective.
Despite President Obama’s election, race continues to cement itself as a political issue. Obama has made some slip-ups of his own, including getting involved in the Harvard University professor Henry Louis Gates’s arrest and the administration’s quick dismissal of Shirley Sherrod for an out-of-context sound bite.
Obama talked about a “post-racial” America when he was campaigning for president. This is the kind of America I want. A color-blind society where we neither define each other as members of a particular race not forget the heritage shared by members of a race or ethnicity may be an idealistic goal, but is an attainable one. The issue in our society today is an intense focus on race that makes race an issue in the wrong situations.
Accusations of racism have been lobbed at GOP presidential candidates throughout this primary season. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA) charged Obama with being a “food stamp president,” and his remark was reported by Democrats as racist despite the number of people on food stamps rising as part of the stimulus package, and more whites than blacks being on food stamps. Food stamps are not a “black” program. The program is meant for the poor of all races, and it is wrong to equate a small government argument with being racist.
Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) endured a great deal of scrutiny leading up to the Iowa Caucus about newsletters printed under his name that harbored racist sentiments. It turns out the most damaging racial statements were likely put into the newsletters without Paul’s knowledge, and his not deleting the statements was a serious oversight error. All this occurred despite Paul’s candidacy attracting diverse crowds and his commitment to equality as a libertarian-leaning Republican.
Former Governor Mitt Romney (R-MA) has been called racist towards Hispanics due to his opposition to illegal immigration, despite the law supporting his position. Campaigning in Florida, Romney said illegal aliens would not be rounded up and deported, but programs such as e-Verify, which check the immigration status of potential workers should be put in place. He used the term “self-deportation” to describe his policy position. Romney is not a racist; he just has a position harbored by 60-plus percent of Americans who oppose illegal immigrants gaining legal status. Former Speaker Gingrich went too far with his radio ad calling Romney “anti-immigrant,” just another example of how race is misused by politicians.
This focus on race is unnecessary in our political system and poisonous to our politics. Republicans and the Tea Party are not trying to create policies that harm minorities. That is a ridiculous claim, and one made to defend the big government mentality of the Democratic Party.
We need to move past these endless debates on race, and focus on more clearly defined issues. If a Republican or conservative says anything racially-insensitive, I will be the first to denounce that individual. Taking statements out of context or obscuring what the speaker meant is not acceptable. We cannot just assume that someone is a racist because of their particular political ideology.
While I do not think it is possible to completely ignore race in the political context (nor should we), we need to change the way race is discussed in the public sphere.
Race and ethnicity are quintessential aspects of the Swarthmore experience. We are exposed to people from a variety of different backgrounds, all here for the same reason: to engage in the intellectual pursuits that define who we are as people. With our campus divided about fifty-fifty between whites and minorities, each person brings his or her own racial and cultural experience to the table.
There are ethnic and cultural groups on campus, but friend groups are very diverse and nobody gets as caught up in the racial stereotyping spewed by the media. I often hear jokes on campus about race, as Swatties are so comfortable with each other on the topic. The rest of society is not as mature as the majority of Swarthmore with regard to race because we are all exposed to different cultures here. Accusations of racism are thrown around all the time, often for the minutest words or statements taken completely out of context.
I want the rest of society to be like Swarthmore when it comes to discussions about race. I want people to be able to celebrate their background, but, in the public sphere, see human beings not just as members of a particular racial group. This starts with us ignoring the charges of racism that occur all the time in the media and in politics, and focusing on how we want to talk about race. It’s time to start that dialogue.
Tyler is a sophomore. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.