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Elizabeth on Looking Towards the Future

I am not by nature an optimistic person. I have always found pessimism a better universe in which to dwell. There, if things get worse, at least I’m not surprised. Thus, when I received a few invitations to attend “election results” parties on the night of November 4th, I turned them down, of course. I am used to being on the losing side in Presidential elections, and while I had my quiet hopes that this one would have a different ending from the last two, I also had my outspoken doubts, so there was simply no way I was going to attend anything that remotely smacked of celebration.

Early in the political season, I had liked Governor Richardson’s candidacy. I liked what he had to say and he spoke it frankly and with good sense. When I watched the early debates among the Democrats who were running for the party’s nomination, I thought we had an embarrassment of riches on our side: all those intelligent and articulate people lined up on stage, sparring with one another and answering questions in complete and thoughtful sentences. They were, to the English teacher within me, an enormous relief after the past years of mangled and uneducated speech.

Once Governor Richardson dropped out, I looked to Hillary Clinton. I had not the slightest doubt about her intelligence, her work ethic, and her political acumen. I was worried a bit about the possibility that some of the insalubrious scandals of the Clinton years in the White House would be resurrected if she became the candidate, and I knew she would have to face a brutal campaign, but I believed she would be more than a match for anyone the opposition set up against her. I liked Barack Obama as well, but in those early days I didn’t think too much about him. And then New Hampshire happened, and for the first time I had the chance to hear him speak at length. I liked not only what he said but how he said it. I liked his spirit. At the end of the speech, I said to my husband, “That’s the guy,” and I never changed my mind.

I knew it would be an uphill battle all the way, because he was young, because he had not served long in public office (although longer, as it turns out, than Abraham Lincoln prior to his assuming the Presidency), because he is an African-American, and because he would be facing the same Republican party that gave us the Swift Boat Veterans for “Truth” in 2004. This party—the party of Florida 2000 and Watergate 1972—was capable of anything when it came to winning an election, I believed. Nonetheless, I put up yard signs, wore buttons, put bumper stickers on cars, and wrote “Vote Obama” on the bottom of every check I filled out and on the front of every envelope I mailed. After the Republican convention, though, I decided I had to become more involved and I wrote a series of position papers, some of which you yourself might have seen. My guy won, and I was delighted, and you’re no doubt wondering why I just don’t go away at this point and leave you in peace.

I fully intended to do that. But the day before I sent out my last position paper, I received a disturbing email from a woman I know in southern California. The nature of the email was such that I think it well worth looking at and meditating upon.

She had taken strong issue with my penultimate position paper: “Elizabeth George on Race in America.” She told me that she disagreed with most of it, although she did not give any specific details. What she did say, after telling me that she disagreed with my paper, was the following and I found it chilling:

“Being a Muslim and/or being backed by Muslims who want to destroy every one of us has nothing to do with a person’s race. Muslims can be of any race. Muslims said they would destroy us from the inside out, and that is what they are doing. It is planned, calculated, and going on right now. I agree that we still have racial tensions in our country, but it is not a ‘one-sided activity.’ The issue, by the way, was brought up far earlier than two weeks ago…it has been discussed all along….at least in the media which I watch. As I understand it, the African-American community intends to riot if Obama does not win, and it is also said (by police and military) that rioting will occur if he does win, because that will be their celebration. Not a comforting thought. I’m not going to go into pages of detail, but there is much to be considered on both sides, and much information that is not given in the mainstream media. I love you, care about you, and miss you, but I do not want our country sold down the river to an angry dictator/killer/religeous (sic) fanatic (or under the guise of being one) that will use anyone he can, and especially the president, to control our country.”

People who know me well also know—and frequently have to forgive—that I often react rather than merely respond. And react to this email is exactly—and unfortunately—what I did. My first reaction was incredulity. My second reaction was agitation. My third reaction was a desire to “get” her just to relieve my own feelings of outrage. Kick her to the curb, I thought. Stamp on her fingers. Force some information down her throat. Call her names. Tell her to get out of my life.

I would like to reveal that my better angels prevailed and I did not do any of that. Alas, that is not the case. I did write to her in brief and I fired the message off—this is the downside of email, isn’t it?—before I cooled down. My reason for doing this, as I noted above, had more to do with venting my feelings of outrage and relieving myself the burden of having to carry them than it had to do with opening a dialog with a person who was either appallingly ill-informed about the Pillars of Islam, the Hajj, and other matters relating to Muslim beliefs and practices or she was a religious bigot and a racist to boot.

When I had a moment to think about things afterwards, I first considered the interesting options that a win-or-lose race riot in “the African American community” offered me. If I got myself down to Los Angeles quickly enough and in advance of the election results, I wondered if I could possibly find out where Denzel Washington would be throwing Molotov cocktails? I’ve always had a soft spot for Denzel, and whether or not he was in the midst of hurling a Molotov cocktail, I’d rather like to meet him. My husband was willing to accompany me there on the off chance he might run into Halle Barry carrying off a wide screen TV. He’s a gentleman, and he’d have loved to help her move it. It wouldn’t have gone amiss to run into Sidney Poitier overturning a vehicle, either. And chances were good, I thought, that if I went elsewhere in the country I might see and capture the autograph of my favorite basketball player from the glory days of the Chicago Bulls: Scotty Pippin. I considered inviting my friend Jay along because he’s a serious golfer and we might see Tiger Woods breaking windows with his clubs if we worked at it. My friend Don is a military man, and he probably wouldn’t mind a conversation with Colin Powell in between the former Secretary of State’s carrying off a Lazy Boy recliner. My former husband really likes tennis, so he’d probably be willing to join the hunt for rioters so that he could score an autograph from Venus Williams or her sister Serena. None of us would be particularly anxious to have Clarence Thomas’s signature on anything, but if we searched around for where he was rioting, I figured we might be able to catch him in the act of wheeling a large, new barbecue out of the Home Depot parking lot. As my brother would put it, “Gotta hev dem ribs!”

I hope my point is taken.

Once I brought myself around to the sheer stupidity of what this wretched woman had written, it didn’t take me long to understand that I needed to make an amends to her for the manner in which I had attacked her in my email. I would have liked to think that my attack sprang from my friendship with a lovely Muslim woman in England—Kossur “Kay” Ghafoor—who had generously helped me in my understanding of Islam and the Muslim community in Great Britain prior to my writing a novel on the subject. I would have liked to think that my attack was made while I held in my mind the high school kids of all races in whose houses I partied when I was sixteen years old. I would have liked to think I made it because the mongers of hate represented by such luminaries as Rush Limbaugh and the commentators on Fox “News” must be silenced if we are ever to come together as a country and I was doing my part to silence them. But the truth of the matter as I finally saw it was that I attacked her out of my own fragile sense of ego. I’m right and you’re wrong and I’m about to smear your face in the rightness of my right, kiddo. Thus, I needed to make an amends to her, for the attack and for closing off dialog with her. And I needed to do it in advance of the election itself.

The very day I sat down to do so, I received a letter from her. She was “shocked” at what I had written to her in my email, she said, because she is “not a racist.” She judges people individually, not as a group. As far as her declaration that Muslims are taking over America “from within”, she went on to explain that Barack Obama knew Louis Farrakhan through Jeremiah Wright and it was, apparently although she did not state this, Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam who wished to destroy America from within. She had seen this reported on television “by a black lady,” she told me.

I went ahead and wrote my letter of amends to her. I did open the topic of what I referred to as “the dark heart of racism” but I didn’t accuse her of it. And my point here, writing this paper, is not to argue whether or not this woman is a religious bigot and a racist, either. My point is to meditate myself—and perhaps to encourage someone else to do the same—on what it means when fear drives belief.

We have been for seven years now a nation dominated by fear. We have been encouraged to give in to it because when we are afraid we can be more easily molded. We can be molded to accept the unacceptable: the loss of rights guaranteed to us under the United States Constitution; the growth of a dangerous imbalance in power between the Executive and Legislative branches of our government; the torture of prisoners held without trial and without charge; the deaths and maiming of hundreds of thousands of innocent people; the invasion of sovereign countries without provocation; the wholesale destruction of cities and towns, roads, airports, railways…. We are encouraged to accept all of this because it is done in the name of everything from ending terrorism to safeguarding our values, whatever that means. And the interesting thing about embracing the fear that allows all this to happen is that such fear requires nothing of us—not a single action on our part—and this allows us to give in to a form of mental lethargy that keeps us tuned in to infotainment on our televisions instead of insisting upon our doing something to change what’s going on.

If we look at the history of race in this country, I suppose the truth is that white America has much to fear from black America because if ever a people might feel the need for revenge, this is the people and with good reason: When Abraham Lincoln made the emancipation of slaves one of the cornerstones on which he built his Presidency, slavery had already existed in this country for 250 years. We who are white have absolutely no way to wrap our minds around this little detail. 250 years comprise roughly ten generations, ten generations in which white people practiced slavery: buying and selling human beings, tearing apart families, whipping, branding, chaining, maiming, using, and discarding. Occasionally raping as well. When I was born, it was less than 100 years after slavery had been abolished. Less than 100 years.

Now, we white people—and I assume most readers of this will be white—cannot possibly ever understand what it is to be African American in America. There is simply no way. We can read about it, take classes that deal with it, talk to African Americans and learn from them, watch television shows about it, listen to prominent journalists interview people from all walks of life on the topic, but because we can walk away from each of these experiences and still be what we are—white—we can never, ever fully grasp what the life experience is for someone who is not. Thus, although we can well up with tears and mark November 4, 2008, as a day that changed the history of this country, we can never understand what it meant for the African American community who watched it unfold. What we can do is remember scene after scene that was shown on television: Harlem, Chicago, Atlanta, Times Square, Washington D.C….the weeping, the embracing, the cheering…and not a fire lit, not a car overturned, not a window broken, not a Molotov cocktail thrown. We can remember that we saw people of all races together, at this one incredible and unforgettable moment in time, celebrating as people actually celebrate, not as some fear monger tells us they will celebrate.

Which brings my to my poor sad friend, sitting in her home in southern California on that same night of November 4th, watching her television and herself assimilating the reactions across the country as—at 8:00 Pacific Time—Senator Barack Obama became President-Elect of the United States. Perhaps she was waiting fearfully behind locked doors for those riots to begin. Perhaps she was waiting for Louis Farrakhan to parachute into Grant Park in Chicago, accompanied by Reverend Wright and Osama bin Laden. Perhaps she listened to the President-Elect’s speech and anticipated the moment when he would fall to his knees, faced the east, and made a form of obeisance in the direction of Mecca. Or, perhaps as is more likely, she turned off the television so she didn’t have to see how narrow her vision had become that she had swallowed the hook, the line, and the sinker that comprise what the mongers of hate want her to believe.

There are many problems that face us as a nation now, and I will daily pray for our President-Elect and for the team of people he will assemble to address these problems. Most of them comprise complicated situations that have developed over the last eight years, situations requiring patience, diplomacy, and cooperation among people of differing and sometimes warring views. But among these situations there is one that we can participate in if we so chose:

What are we as individuals within a faltering nation going to do about hate and fear? Are we going to recognize it when a radio host or a television host spews it out? If we do recognize it, are we going to do something about it? Turn it off? Write a letter? Read a book or an article to educate ourselves? Are we going to step into our communities and embrace an activity that can change our communities and our perception of the world? What, indeed, is each of us going to do?

Nations change when people take action, when they draw the line in the sand and say “Enough.” Rosa Parks did that when she sat at the front of the city bus nearly fifty years ago. She later claimed she did it because her feet were tired, and perhaps that was indeed the case. But one little lady with tired feet and the willingness to say “enough” to racial discrimination helped spawn an entire movement in the United States. It culminated with the election of Barack Obama’s landslide victory on November 4th.

We have a lot to be proud of in the election of Senator Barack Obama to the Presidency. But we also have much work to do so that we can reach the day when people like my friend in southern California can look at themselves in the mirror and say, “God, forgive me. Was I ever wrong.”

- Elizabeth George
Whidbey Island, Washington


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