The Trouble with Spikol

The most powerful person in the country could soon resemble the least.

By Liz Spikol
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 16, 2008

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More than just lip service: Unfortunately, race remains a factor in presidential politics.

In November 2006 Barack Obama gathered supporters to discuss running for president. When someone asked him about race, The New York Times reported, "Mr. Obama's dismissal was swift and unequivocal. He had been able to navigate racial politics in Illinois, Mr. Obama told the group, and was confident he could do so across the nation. 'I believe America is ready,' one aide recalled him saying."

But after claiming Americans were ready to look beyond race when they considered a presidential candidate, a month ago Obama found himself delivering a lengthy speech on race--partially in response to the controversy surrounding Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the leader of his black church.

I never believed in Obama's idea of post-racial politics. Maybe it's living in a racially fraught city like Philadelphia that breeds such cynicism. Whatever the reason, I'm going in the opposite direction. I'm voting for Obama because he's black.

That requires explaining, I know.

I take voting extremely seriously. I always have, even in mock elections as a child. I get neurotic about it beforehand. I stay awake nights. I get a nervous stomach. The Clinton/Obama race has really taxed me. I've consumed so much information about both candidates, it's been like a Wing Bowl primary.

Ultimately, I've decided to make my vote consonant with my decision to vote for the African-American candidate. I'm not suggesting you do the same because my logic is highly personal, and slightly weird.

About a year ago I had a crisis of faith about doing good. I'm embarrassed to admit it was spurred by a Mahatma Gandhi quotation. I don't remember where I found it. On a website offering words of wisdom? Who knows? It was undoubtedly somewhere humiliating.

The quotation: "The measure of a country's greatness should be based on how well it cares for its most vulnerable populations."

My first reaction was, "Jeez. Based on that, the U.S. sucks." Not exactly eloquent, but how's your internal monologue? I bet you use some shorthand too.

Something in me clicked. I left full-time work at PW to go into social services--first at an agency that advocated for incarcerated people, and now at a mental health center. Each day I think about what Gandhi said, only I've changed it: "The measure of Liz should be based on how well she cares for her country's most vulnerable populations."

African-Americans are this country's most vulnerable citizens. They are more devastatingly and disproportionately affected by poverty, hunger, incarceration, crime and unemployment than any other ethnic group.

It's a life-and-death situation. If you're an African-American woman, your baby is more than twice as likely to die than if you're a white woman. You're less likely to survive cancer. You're more likely to have AIDS and diabetes. And you're far less likely to have health insurance.

There are complex reasons for all of these problems, which are perhaps best explained by a social scientist rather than someone who can calculate only a 20 percent tip. But I do know this: Racism is a defining factor.

I'm part of a minority group myself, but if I want to be hidden about my ethnicity, I can pass. That's a luxury African-Americans don't have. If you're African-American, the first thing a person knows about you is that you're black--whether it's at a job interview, in a classroom, at an ER or a court proceeding. African-Americans have to challenge people's assumptions about them every day from the minute they walk in the door.

How do I know Barack Obama would be good for African-Americans? I don't. No American president has been good for black people--not even Bill Clinton, our first black president, according to Toni Morrison.

But it's a matter of hope, which is sadly lacking in black America. If you have a black president, imagine the message that sends to black children, and to African-Americans who feel hopeless about their lives. Never has the most powerful person in this country resembled the least powerful. What would it be like for our most vulnerable citizens to see themselves that way?

I've heard some say there's no way America is ready to have black children romping on the White House lawn. There's a part of me that believes that. Every time a racist incident happens in Philadelphia--like the recent vandalism of a home purchased by a black family in a white neighborhood--it's hard for me to imagine America is ready to have Michelle Obama as first lady, no matter how pretty her suits are.

But we have to try. On behalf of the most vulnerable, I must vote for Barack Obama in the hope that having a black family in the White House will revolutionize the way we see black people--in the same way some feminists hope having a female president would change the way women are treated.

There may be a time when America is ready for post-racial politics, and when that time comes, I hope our most vulnerable will be in a very different place. Until then, I've made my decision. As another quotable gentleman said (according to Matthew 6:2-4), "When you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do. Announce it in the quiet of the voting booth." Or something like that.

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