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Wow! Some strong words today about race relations in America from Eric Holder, our new attorney general. In a speech to Justice Department employees commemorating Black History Month, Holder said the workplace is largely integrated but Americans still self-segregate in their private lives.

“Though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards,” said Holder, who is our first black attorney general. Race issues continue to be a topic of political discussion, he added, but “we, as average Americans, simply do not talk enough with each other about race.”

More from Holder’s speech:

As a nation we have done a pretty good job in melding the races in the workplace. We work with one another, lunch together and, when the event is at the workplace during work hours or shortly thereafter, we socialize with one another fairly well, irrespective of race. And yet even this interaction operates within certain limitations. We know, by “American instinct” and by learned behavior, that certain subjects are off limits and that to explore them risks, at best embarrassment, and, at worst, the questioning of one’s character. And outside the workplace the situation is even more bleak in that there is almost no significant interaction between us. On Saturdays and Sundays America in the year 2009 does not, in some ways, differ significantly from the country that existed some fifty years ago. This is truly sad. Given all that we as a nation went through during the civil rights struggle it is hard for me to accept that the result of those efforts was to create an America that is more prosperous, more positively race conscious and yet is voluntarily socially segregated.

You can find Holder’s complete speech here. Pretty bold statements for someone who has only been in his job a few weeks. I tend to agree with him. In fact, some of his comments read like things I’ve been saying during my talks at churches, Christian colleges, and conferences. I hope Holder and others in the new administration are able to help America talk about these issues in a more honest and forthright way.

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In the recently released film New in Town, did you know Renée Zellweger was supposed to be Angela Bassett or Gabrielle Union? That is, Ms. Zellweger’s character was originally written for an African American actress. I honestly didn’t give much thought to the opening of this movie (and based on its weekend box office, neither did anyone else) until I read this piece in The Root, detailing how Kenneth Rance, the African American screenwriter of the movie, watched it go from a vehicle for a black actress, as he originally conceived it, to a vehicle for Ms. Zellweger. Rance’s experience is fascinating, if not a little sad.

Then today, I ran across this post from popular conservative blogger La Shawn Barber about the evolution of the movie and the sacrifices artists sometimes make to get their art out there. Ms. Barber has a personal connection to the story, and she poses a thought-provoking scenario for all of us to ponder:

Imagine yourself in [Kenneth] Rance’s situation. Someone wants to buy your work and make your movie, which no doubt will open doors and build your network of people in the business who can help get subsequent movies off the ground. But there’s a catch.

Is changing the race (sex, religion, nationality, etc.) of your main characters a small price to pay?

Great question. Well, what do you think?

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National Public Radio’s fascinating roundtable on race and the presidential election continued today with a segment on Morning Edition and another on All Things Considered. This is a reconvening of the diverse panel of black, Latino, Asian, and white voters from York, Pennsylvania. Their candid discussion is worth your time.

A few questions occurred to me as I listened to this morning’s segment that I’d love to hear you interact on:

  • What does the McCain/Palin slogan “Country First” suggest to you?
  • Who is Joe Six-Pack?
  • When Sarah Palin says things like, “[Obama] is not a man who sees America as you and I see America. We see America as a force for good in this world,” what does she mean by “we”?
  • Does Barack Obama include pictures of his white grandparents in his political ads as a way to reassure white voters?
  • Would an African American with darker skin have gotten as far as Obama has in a presidential race?
  • What does it really mean to be patriotic?
  • Do you think there will be any type of post-election violence motivated by anger and tension from either side of the race line? 

Those are just a few of the questions that spring to mind. You may have others. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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Alright, I’m just gonna go ahead and post on this. I’ve been trying to resist, since it seems all I ever blog about anymore is Obama and race. But the cultural Zeitgeist is what it is.

Earlier this week, Politico ran a series of articles on the role of race in the current presidential battle. The pieces covered all the now-familiar terrain, speculating on how big of a role race (or racism) could play in the upcoming election. For me, the most interesting piece was a report on “How Obama Quietly Targets Blacks.”

One of the most fascinating aspects of Obama’s campaign has been the delicate balance he must strike between reaching white voters and black voters. The unspoken understanding has long been that if Obama does too much to appeal to the African American community, he’d scare off many in the white community. While I think this is silly and perhaps insulting to many white voters who have no problem with Obama’s skin color, I also think it’s true a lot of the time. Again, the Zeitgeist is what it is.

And so, for the majority of his campaign, Obama has found it necessary to treat the African American community the same way a bashful eighth-grader does that pretty girl in English class—glancing at her only in quick snatches, lest his secret crush become a topic of public discussion among all the middle-schoolers. Here’s one of that Politico article’s most riveting quotes:

“What [Obama] has done is he’s shunned black voters — but he knows that they know that he’s black. And he knows that they know in our communities we have a certain feeling that he’s got to do that to get those white votes,” said Kevin Wardally, a New York City political consultant who worked for Hillary Rodham Clinton. “We inherently believe that what he’s doing he has to do — he has to not be in Harlem to get those white votes.” 

As I read that, I wondered how some white readers would interpret this statement. Would it seem to them that Obama is being sneaky or disingenuous? Would they be able to recognize the sad irony in all of this? The thing is, white politicians can often be very upfront about appealing to the cultural sensibilities of white voters. For instance, when Sarah Palin talks about Obama not feeling that “our great country” is perfect enough, something tells me she’s not thinking of non-whites when she says “our.” If an African American politician like Obama were as brazen with black voters, he wouldn’t stand a chance.

I confess that I was intrigued by these Politico reports. But to tell you the truth, I think these types of articles are getting old. Every day brings another examination of the role of race. Will the “Bradley Effect” rob Barack Obama of the presidential race, even though the polls keep putting him well ahead? Will the “Bubba Vote” save John McCain? Did McCain mean something sinister during the debate when he said, “That One”? Are Sarah Palin’s frequent slams against Obama before mostly white audiences (“This is not a man who sees America like you and I see America”) racial code for something else?

I could give you my opinion, but what difference would it really make? Who really cares anymore? Are any of us truly ready to see the argument from the other side’s perspective? Some will call it racism. Some will call it down-and-dirty campaigning. It is what it is. And depending on your personal experience, your political affiliation, your cultural background, and perhaps the color of your skin, you’re going to have a different opinion about the meaning of it all. Honestly, at the end of the day, none of that really matters.

What does matter, however, is how we’re treating our fellow citizens, how we’re treating our brothers and sisters. Sometimes I almost think it would be best to put real life on hold during the high theater of this phase of the election season, when emotions are high and partisan rhetoric is running at a fever pitch. In these latter days of the race, there’s usually no room for banal values like respect, compassion, and grace. Right now, it’s all about getting our guy (or gal) elected.

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With the collapse of the U.S. financial system, all other news tends to pale in comparison. Still, sticking with the main theme of this blog, here are a few of the interesting news items and blog posts that I stumbled across over the past week.

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From a new Associated Press report:

Deep-seated racial misgivings could cost Barack Obama the White House if the election is close, according to an AP-Yahoo News poll that found one-third of white Democrats harbor negative views toward blacks — many calling them “lazy,” “violent,” responsible for their own troubles.

The poll, conducted with Stanford University, suggests that the percentage of voters who may turn away from Obama because of his race could easily be larger than the final difference between the candidates in 2004 — about two and one-half percentage points.

Certainly, Republican John McCain has his own obstacles: He’s an ally of an unpopular president and would be the nation’s oldest first-term president. But Obama faces this: 40 percent of all white Americans hold at least a partly negative view toward blacks, and that includes many Democrats and independents.

Read the full article here. Also, Glenn Loury and John McWhorter continue their engrossing conversation about the election over at Bloggingheads.tv. These two scholars continue to offer some of the most intelligent, balanced, and unpredictable commentary on the political and social implications of the presidential race.

Update, Sept. 21:The Race Discussion Obama Didn’t Want,” Politico.com’s analysis of the AP-Yahoo poll.

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I knew actor/director Tim Reid from his roles as Venus Flytrap on WKRP in Cincinnati and Ray Campbell on Sister, Sister. I knew Tom Dreesen from his frequent guest spots on The Late Show with David Letterman. What I didn’t know is that the two of them once comprised “the nation’s first black and white comedy team.” That is, until I saw this article in today’s Chicago Tribune and learned about a new book, Tim & Tom: An American Comedy in Black and White, that traces their unique history.

From 1969 to 1974 (several years before Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder teamed up for their first film together), Reid and Dreesen performed at black, white, and sometimes mixed nightclubs across the country. In an era when racial humor was still too hot to handle for most folks, the duo did satirical bits such as “Superspade and the Courageous Caucasian.” Unfortunately, their act was considered too dangerous and controversial for the socially turbulent climate of the early seventies, so the pair eventually broke up. Though they each went on to achieve individual fame, they were never able to break into the top ranks of show business as a tandem.

Still, for a brief, heady period in pop culture, Reid and Dreesen were out there using comedy to defuse and illuminate the volatile subject of race in America. In their own way, they were pioneers in racial reconciliation.

Update, Sept. 20: NPR’s Weekend Edition Saturday featured a nice interview with Reid and Tom this morning.

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