Dan Hall: Race is the elephant in the room
I am going to vote for Barack Obama on Tuesday, and yes, race is part of my reason.
It is not my only reason, of course. Over the past eight years, George Bush and much of the Republican Party have presented an unfamiliar version of America to the rest of the world: not America the shining light on the hill, but an America of bluster and threats. Guantanamo and torture. Conspicuous consumption, built on a foundation of sand.
The people who have done this call themselves conservatives, but they are not.
Real conservatives value education and intellectual curiosity. They favor small government and cautious spending, but still they find opportunities to use government to conserve the natural environment, advance scientific understanding and open economic opportunities for the poor and middle class. They value humility, and they respect traditional virtues.
These false conservatives have borrowed and spent the nation to the edge of bankruptcy. They have grown government to a size and a level of intrusiveness unimaginable just a few years ago. They reject scientific investigation when the results contradict their ideology. They say a Harvard education means you’re not a “real American.” They mock and belittle anyone who stands in their way.
I admire John McCain, a man who has stood as a force of decency and moderation against this false kind of conservatism. But in this campaign, he looks backward rather than forward. The nation must chart a new course.
Obama looks forward. He has surrounded himself with respected leaders, Democrats and Republicans, who have the creativity, experience and knowledge to face what may lie ahead, at home and abroad.
Obama demonstrates thoughtfulness and grace. In his books and in his speeches, he shows that he is grounded in the foundations of America — its history, the opportunity and freedom it offers, and above all, its aspirations of greatness. He recognizes that in no other country could he have come as far as he has.
Let’s not, however, ignore the elephant in the living room: Obama is the first black man ever to come anywhere near the highest office in the land. This election is very much about race.
I know exactly when I first recognized the reality of race in America. It was 1957, three years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation of the schools.
I was 13 years old, and I loved history — especially American history. I read books celebrating Thomas Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence. I wondered if I could ever aspire to the courage of George Washington and his army frozen at Valley Forge. I delved into the heroism and tragedy of Abraham Lincoln and the freeing of the slaves.
I was a newspaper boy in 1957, delivering the old Detroit Times, and I was in the habit of sitting and reading the paper before I started out on my route.
One day I opened the paper to a different kind of American story: There, on the front page, was a picture of hundreds of heavily armed soldiers in Little Rock, Ark. President Eisenhower had sent them to escort nine “negro” children, as they were called then, into an all-white school. Trying to stop them was a mob of angry whites screaming their hatred.
Those nine children were not much older than Obama’s two daughters, Malia and Sasha, are now.
Six years later, I again opened a newspaper to a story of hatred. On the front page were the pictures of four little girls killed when a Ku Klux Klansman threw a dynamite bomb into their Sunday school.
I was by then a college freshman, fired by idealism and the words Edmund Burke: “All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.”
I joined a couple of hundred other students heading to Washington, D.C., to join the big civil rights march planned by Martin Luther King. For the rest of my college life, I played a bit role in the civil rights drama.
America of today is far different from the America of 1957. I work now as a substitute teacher in local schools, and I look for opportunities to talk to students about the civil rights movement. I try to describe what it was like to stand in the crowd to hear King deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech. The first question they ask is, “How old are you?”
For them, those events are ancient history. Yet history has echoes. We can all hear those echoes now, in the most vicious campaign of innuendo and fear mongering of any election during the past 50 years.
For more than a year now, I have been telling my friends that there is no way Obama could possibly become president. I did not think the nation was ready.
It is only in the past few days that I have begun to believe that I might actually see two little “negro” girls walk into the White House, escorted by their own father and mother, the president and first lady. I want my vote to help make that happen.
Hall is the former editrial page editor of Messenger Post Newspapers. E-mail email@example.com.