Monday, October 06, 2008

Presidential Nerve

by Lenny Mcallister

While some people think that Sarah Palin has some nerve with her campaign rhetoric, it is clear that her candidacy has struck an unspoken nerve in some segments in America.

I remember sitting there with Claudio Simpkins (the Republicans’ future Barack Obama) during the Republican National Convention when these infamous words came from the mouth of Governor Sarah Palin: “And since our opponents in this presidential election seem to look down on that experience, let me explain to them what the job involves. I guess a small-town mayor is sort of like a ‘community organizer,’ except that you have actual responsibilities.”

As the crowd in St. Paul reacted to the comment directed toward presidential candidate Senator Barack Obama (D-IL), Claudio turned to me as we both shared the same thought: the political jab will not be taken lightly by others post-convention. We agreed that, further still, there would be a backlash within America – particularly Black America – for the comment. “You’re going to hear about this,” I told him. “Sooner than later.”

Unfortunately, no less than 12 hours later, our theory would come to pass as fact. During a radio interview that Mr. Simpkins did for an African-American morning show on XM Radio, callers expressed their vehement dissatisfaction towards Palin’s chiding of Obama’s community organizer days and, on a larger scale, of his mettle to garner the presidency in 2008. More regrettably, as I heard of the types of comments (and verbiage) used to express their disapproval, I knew that our country stood at the crossroads of two paths along the journey of equal rights in America.

A few weeks ago, I talked about how America could take personal stock in the successes of Senator Obama and Governor Palin after their acceptance speeches at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions, respectively (

I noted that we had a chance to witness history as both candidates spoke to record numbers of supporters that cheered them on in primetime. They were the harvest of the hard work of civil rights advocates that fought for equal treatment for African-Americans and women, particularly those that have lived long enough to witness the progressive changes in attitudes and accomplishments for Black people and women of all ethnicities in this country. Despite the history-making speeches and subsequent pride that we felt from smashing the proverbial glass ceiling, there was something on the horizon that we failed to see before us:

The next barrier for us to overcome - the monstrous combination of perception, prejudice, and the past.

Tucked away in the all-American stories of a Black kid from Hawaii and the PTA mom from Wasilla is the ugly truth that some within America hold a bit of resentment towards White women and the progress they have made over the past 40 years. Those that hold this position feel that as Black people have begun to feel a backlash against them over the past 15 years (pointing to increasing incidents of police brutality, African-American prisoners, and Black student failure in schools as examples), White women have continued to gain equality within the corporate and social worlds that we live in. Further still, there are those that would argue that White women – in the quest to eliminate sexism – leveraged the momentum of the civil rights movement for personal gain, only to leave aside the movement for Black equality once women’s rights issues were addressed. Of course, there are those that would challenge this theory and disagree.

One thing is clear, however: perception, in this case, is reality, especially since this is an issue that may involve more emotion than facts and figures.

Another point of tension in this dynamic of race relations this year is the traditional uneasiness of Black man/White woman interactions over the course of American history. I will not go into the viewpoints and stereotypes that permeated from the 18th and 19th centuries, mostly because some of those stereotypes do not have the same weight for Generation X’ers and Baby Boomers as it did for their parents and grandparents. However, for the generations of Black women that increasingly live their adult lives without a male partner, there is the “dirty-little-secret” of resentment towards White women, particularly those White women that find themselves partnered with or married to Black men. Just having a White female candidate juxtaposed with the first African-American man to garner a major-party presidential nomination touches a raw nerve that many in the media may not talk about but most in the barber shops, beauty shops, and dining rooms of America – particularly in Black America - know is real.

Coupling all of this underlying tension with the role that Governor Sarah Palin must play in the presidential election as we tick down the final 4 weeks of the campaign brings about nastiness from voters that we have not seen in decades.

As the vice presidential candidate, Governor Palin is in the position where she has to take on the role as attack dog, voicing the harsh criticism of the Obama-Biden ticket that Senator John McCain should not voice himself lest he risk a severe backlash. This is a traditional role for the vice presidential candidate on a ticket, but this year brings about a unique dilemma that the McCain-Palin ticket must not overlook. It is challenging enough for many to see a Black man – one that has garnered a historical victory as the Democratic nominee and, at this time, is leading in the race for the presidency – attacked at all. Just the historical significance of Barack Obama will make some hyper-protective, even to the point of disapproving of legitimate criticism of his policies or campaign. It is harder still for them to witness him come under verbal attack from a White woman. The oft-shared opinion that Sarah Palin is not qualified or prepared to be vice president only adds fuel to the fire, for critics that take issue to Palin’s attacks on Obama are offended that an unqualified candidate (in their view) is capable of regularly bashing the junior senator from Illinois. To some, it only reinforces a racial hierarchy that may or may not play out in the socioeconomic structures of America today.

Of course, it doesn’t help when her verbal jabs have included digs at Senator Obama’s work as a community organizer, a vital role of leadership within urban communities – the same communities that would be more likely to hold this racial sensitivity.
It makes it worse when the GOP vice presidential candidate rehashes a story about Obama “paling around with a terrorist” and “not (being a) man who sees America like you and I see America... We see America as a force of good...”

One action took the appearance of trivializing work that much of urban Black America counts on for social and political support.

The other conjured up past “whisper campaign” rumors of Senator Obama’s supposed Muslim faith and ties with Islamic radicals.

Neither gives the impression that Governor Palin is playing above the board and, thus, only adds fuel to a fire burning due to the emotional firewood sitting around from the past 50 years of race relations, particularly the unspoken intersection of sex and race.

What is ironic, when taking a deeper look, is the fact that those that find themselves sensitive to Palin attacks on Obama due to the scars outlined in this article must somehow overlook the fact that the very type of woman that they despise in 2008 would, in all likelihood, be akin to Senator Obama’s late mother just a few generations ago.
As we approach Election Day, we learn more about American race perceptions throughout our country everyday.

For example:

  • those that thought that we were not fair enough to be in this position with the make-up of our presidential tickets were wrong – we are capable of having a woman and a Black man on general election tickets and have them galvanize the parties’ bases;

  • those that thought that race and gender matter to everyone in America to a point to impact how we will select a president are wrong – there are those within each generation that truly do see content of character and do not fixate on the color of one’s skin or the gender of a candidate;

  • those that thought that race is a non-issue in the 21st century are also wrong – we have not graduated to a point where gender and race can differentiate without being divisive or, in some cases, inflammatory; and those that thought that we are at a point of time where our racial dirty laundry can be addressed in civil discussions and therapeutic behavior are also wrong – we are learning that, with every “Obama is a Muslim” or “Caribou Barbie” comment, when we are good when dealing with diversity, we are very good, but when we are bad...

  • Even though there is reason to be mindful of racism and sexism in this election season, it is clear that when the two collide (as with the case of Obama and Palin), there is a presidential nerve that exposes a still-existent sore spot with many.

    ~Lenny McAllister is a contributor to HHR he is also a young African American Republican with a mission to make changes to the status quo in politics, social issues and other issues that hamper our American way of life. He is presntely a political contributor with AOL Black Voices.

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