A Thoroughly Modern America…Think Again?

I have doubts about the potential of a woman or a black man to be elected to the presidency…not as a function of their competency to lead…but as a function of inherent prejudices that lurk within the psyche of some segments of our society. Simultaneously, I’ve felt that the growing opposition to our rapidly expanding immigrant population contains an element of ethnic bias. I have to wonder if we aren’t standing upon the precipice of a period of exclusion and a re-kindling of old, yet inextinguishable inequities.


Commentary By: Daniel DiRito

We Americans like to think of ourselves as evolved individuals who embrace freedom and equality for all…and in many ways our history has demonstrated the truth found in this assumption. At the same time, we haven’t encountered that many recent opportunities to test the merits of our hypothesis.

As I read the news this morning, I found myself wondering if we may be on the verge of moving in the opposite direction…or, at the least, if our stated commitment to such beliefs might be little more than a nice piece of veneer applied to a hidden harbor of hostility.

The events of 9/11 undoubtedly created a heightened level of fear…a level we Americans have rarely been forced to face. In its aftermath, we have seen a growing willingness to suspend some of the civil liberties which have highlighted our purported belief in an open society and a transparent system of governance.

While I understand the inclination and the necessity to act in this manner (within reason), I find myself concerned that such actions may be a slippery slope towards the adoption of other attitudes that serve to undermine the principles upon which this nation was founded.

I suspect many readers may be thinking I’m about to discuss the efforts of our President to allow for greater clandestine surveillance along with other measures he has sought to detect and minimize terrorist threats. While I do view such measures with a healthy degree of skepticism, my observations today are focused upon the thoughts and beliefs we each hold as individuals and which impact America’s status as a beacon for the tenets of democracy and equality.

For some time now, I’ve expressed doubts to friends and acquaintances about the potential of a woman or a black man to be elected to the presidency…not as a function of their competency to lead…but as a function of inherent prejudices that lurk within the psyche of some segments of our society. Simultaneously, I’ve felt that the growing opposition to our rapidly expanding immigrant population contains an element of ethnic bias in addition to the many legitimate concerns that can be associated with shoddy border control.

Today, three articles caught my attention and lent support to my suspicions. The following excerpts are from the first article.

From McClatchy News:

DES MOINES, Iowa – A pair of Sen. Hillary Clinton’s worst nightmares trudged past a giant blue “Hillary for President” sign outside the Iowa State Fair here with palpable disgust.

“Hillary can go to hell,” said Alice Aszman, 66, a Democrat from Ottumwa. “I’ll never vote for her. I don’t think a woman should be president. I think a man should. They’ve got more authority.”

Her husband, Daniel, 50, also a Democrat, agreed: “I think women should stay home instead of being boss.”

A July poll of likely Democratic caucus-goers by the University of Iowa found that Clinton had 30 percent support among women and 18 percent among men. By comparison, there was no difference in gender support for Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who got 21 percent from both men and women.

The same poll found that 32 percent of women strongly agreed that Clinton was electable, while only 14 percent of men did. And 30 percent of women strongly agreed that Clinton was the Democrats’ strongest candidate, while only 17 percent of men did.

In a general election however, it could be a major problem, because men traditionally vote for Republicans at a higher rate than women vote for Democrats.

“She has to be careful the men don’t split against her more than women split for her,” Smith said.

As I read the article, two items stand out. One, we tend to view bias or prejudice as coming exclusively from those who are different than the one at whom the bias or prejudice is directed…meaning bias towards women should come from men and bias towards men should come from women. Unfortunately, that assumption isn’t accurate and the evidence…in the case of Senator Clinton…pours out of the mouths of other women who embrace established societal notions that gender can and should be a limiting factor in certain circumstances.

Two, the long established view that women should have narrowly defined roles in society…roles that are predominantly subservient to men…remain well established among men in America and women who operate outside these parameters are frequently met with derogatory characterizations. While a strong male figure receives the admiration of many males, a strong female is frequently viewed as acerbic and the object of misogynistic ridicule.

Moving onto the next article, the following excerpts point to the underlying obstacles faced by a black man when seeking to hold the highest office in the land.

From The Philadelphia Enquirer:

A computer search finds 464 instances in which Obama’s name appears in print in conjunction with the phrase black enough. The first was in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2003 when he was preparing to run for the Senate. Writer Laura Washington recalled his loss in an earlier House race to a South Side incumbent. “Whispers abounded,” she wrote, “that Obama was –not black enough.’ “

Washington went on to recall how her uncle, a retired black railroad worker, had seen Obama wearing “a thousand-dollar coat” while visiting a public-housing project. Her uncle, she said, “dismissed him as an –elitist.’ “

And isn’t that telling? A black rapper who visited that same housing project wearing a thousand-dollar coat would be celebrated and emulated. A black politician who does so is an elitist.

Man, I wouldn’t walk in Barack Obama’s shoes for a million dollars. Oh, he seems like a swell guy. But it must get real old real fast being America’s tabula rasa, its blank slate upon which it projects unresolved racial aspirations and fears. If it has been painful watching some conservative white Americans project upon him the latter (Is he too black? Is he Muslim? What about that weird name?), it has been just as painful, if not more so, watching many black Americans grappling with the former.

So the question of whether he’s “black enough” reveals more about the people asking than the man being asked. Liberal, and black, and conservative, and white, we have projected our own realities upon this guy, have written like mad upon the blank slate.

Again, we see much the same with regards to Senator Obama. His obstacles are twofold. He must overcome the objections that emanate from within his own racial profile. Senator Obama, much like a woman candidate for president, has to contend with the objections of blacks who see his success as an indication that he has abandoned his racial constituents in favor of winning the approval of whites.

I was particularly struck by the comparison made with regard to the expensive coat. The success achieved by a senator with a good education and excellent credentials can potentially be viewed to be inferior to the success of a rapper. In that dynamic, one can’t help but notice the built-in resistance to change and the peer pressures that exist to prevent certain types of social, cultural, and economic mobility.

At the same time, the senator is confronted by the bias and prejudice that one might well expect to be directed at his candidacy from those racial groups which have had a history of viewing blacks as lesser and unfit to serve as president.

The following excerpts from the final article confront the question of immigration and the growing animosity that permeates the topic.

From McClatchy News:

Scores of organizations, ranging from mainstream to fringe groups, are marshalling forces in what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich calls “a war here at home” against illegal immigration, which he says is as important as America’s conflicts being fought overseas in Iraq and Afghanistan.

While most of the groups register legitimate, widespread concerns about the impact of illegal immigration on jobs, social services and national security, the intense rhetoric is generating fears of an emerging dark side, evident in growing discrimination against Hispanics and a surge of xenophobia unseen since the last big wave of immigration in the early 20th century.

The Alabama-based Southern Poverty Law Center, which monitors hate groups, said the number of “nativist extremist” organizations advocating against illegal immigration has grown from virtually zero just over five years ago to 144, including nine classified as hate groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan and Aryan supremacists.

Demographers and immigration experts say the passions over illegal immigration in the opening decade of the 21st century are comparable to those that swept through American cities with the surge of immigrants who descended on U.S. shores from the 1900s to the 1920s.

The latest wave of immigrants – both legal and illegal – is predominated by Mexicans and other Latin Americans who are venturing deep into the U.S. interior to follow the job market, often settling in towns and cities that, just a few years earlier, were unaccustomed to Hispanics.

The resulting demographic impact on local communities can often lead to social tensions that help explain the intensity of feelings over illegal immigration, said Meissner and other experts.

John Trasvina, president of the Los Angeles-based Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), said the backlash over illegal immigrants is clearly generating widening anti-Hispanic sentiments, often exemplified in hate rhetoric on talk shows and over the Internet.

MALDEF has thus far prevailed in legally defeating municipal immigration ordinances, but Trasvina said that “a poisonous atmosphere” remains.

“What these ordinances do is add tension to the communities,” he said. “So a woman in the grocery is talking to her daughter in Spanish. It emboldens the person standing in line behind her to say, –Hey, speak English.’”

It seems to me that the growing opposition to the expanding Mexican and Latin American immigrant populations may be the best example of the pervasive nature of bias and prejudice. I would argue that the recent outcry results from the perceived threat to our established cultural structure has reached a point of critical mass.

For well over two decades, the influx of immigrants served our interests…interests which included cheap labor in the form of migrant workers, nannies, housekeepers, landscapers, and other roles which Americans viewed to be inferior. While these immigrants remained in the background such that their impact on society was difficult to observe, many Americans were willing to benefit from their presence.

As these immigrant populations became a visible and measurable force in society, their presence has met with a growing disfavor…some of which results from racial prejudice and has led to such vocal and vehement opposition. Efforts to portray the negative impact of immigrants upon society has suddenly overwhelmed much, if not most, of their positive contributions.

In the end, these three articles paint a troubling picture. Despite numerous admirable attributes and an historical willingness to be welcoming and inclusive, I have to wonder if we aren’t standing upon the precipice of a period of exclusion and a re-kindling of old, yet inextinguishable inequities.

While the current administration seems to be focused upon exporting our way of life to the obviously oppressed, we at home may well be in the process of dismantling or erasing the hard fought principles this country has toiled to achieve…the same principles this president has so persistently sought to promote. At the moment, I find myself struggling to view this as a win-win situation.

Cross-posted at Thought Theater

Monday, August 20th, 2007 by Daniel DiRito |

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