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by Peter Moskos

January 27, 2009

Embrace the Right

At the closing of Obama’s inauguration, Joseph Lowery said these controversial words:

“We ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get in back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right.”

Often, I suppose for the sake of politically correctness, the quote is replayed without the last “white” phrase (uh, as if “yellow” and “red man” are politically correct?). But it’s the last phrase that pissed off a lot of people (admittedly, when I first heard Lowery I was too busy laughing to even hear the last phrase).

Why are some so upset? What it all comes down to is the belief that Lowery “got away” with saying something that he could only “get away” with because he’s black.

Personally, Lowery’s comments were my favorite part of the whole day (at least of the parts that involved speeches)! It was great to end everything on a lighter note, and the retro 1960’s cadence was charming (I was born in the 1970s).

But I’m not surprised that so many take umbrage to what I see as a little humor with historical significance.

To those who were surprised that there’s such passion, I offer this:

Many people... and I’m thinking white working-class Republican police officers like those I worked with in Baltimore—but it could be anybody, I suppose.

Many people are just trying to get by and provide for their families. Unlike wealthier folk, these working men and women can’t always afford to live out in "nice" suburban neighborhoods with safe streets and good schools and where Section-8 housing fears to tread.

Say drug dealers move in down the block (be them redneck or ghetto) and things get worse. But say the drug dealers are black. Hell, they might be. Whenever working folk open their mouths, “liberals” (who of course don’t live on the block) call them racist. But they’re not. Really. They don’t hate drug dealers for the color of their skin; they hate drug dealers for the content of their character.

Working folk too often don’t know the politically correct way to phrase things. Working class blacks can say all kinds of things about blacks that white folk can’t say. But the poor white guy, he feels he can’t even join the conversation.

Here’s the rub: for people who so often feel trapped in a linguistic and socioeconomic bind—those who always feel they have to watch what they say so they don’t get called racist—it’s just not fair that Lowery gets applauded for these racially charged words.

Take it when Sarah Palin was referred to as “pig in lipstick.” No supporter of Palin was seriously offended. Hell, McCain used the same line. But that wasn’t the point. The point was a rare moment of victory for them in the linguistic gotcha game: “Ha, see, you’re not being politically correct!”

The thinking goes that if a black person can say something (take, for instance, a comment based on an honest observation like, “that nigga’s lazy!”), why can’t a white person say the same thing? Especially if the black and white man are working together and thinking the same thing about the same lazy person?

What if Rick Warren, the white preacher said this: “We ask you to help us work for that day when white will not be asked to get back, and when black will embrace what is right. Amen.” Ignore the fact that it doesn’t make sense historically or rhyming sense. A white guy could not have said this to the nation. He’s be called racist. So if I white can’t say it, goes the thinking, why should Lowery get away with it?

People don’t want to be held responsible for what others of similar skin color have done (now or in the past). For a lot of whites, being white isn’t seen as a privilege. Hell, they haven’t benefited from the system. The Man ain’t given them shit! They can barely pay the bills.

I do understand the idea that people simple want a level playing field. There are people who want real racial equality. No affirmative action. No things that black coworkers can say that whites can’t. No nothing. No excuses.

Personally, I believe that such an attitude lack a historical perspective and too generously presumes we’re in some post-racial Utopian world (though I do think we’re a bit closer to that world than we were a week ago).

To those who took offense, Lowery reinforced a racial world view and represents an arrogant and liberal form of reverse discrimination. To generalize by race is a form of racial profiling; to do it against whites is just as discriminatory as to do it against blacks.

For me, in my humble opinion, Lowery can say anything he damn well pleases. And we’d be all the wiser to listen.

1 comment:

Dave H. said...

I didn't take offense to Rev. Lowery's comments. I thought they were a fun and light-hearted take on serious issues. And, as a former SCLC leader, he knows how bad things have been, and hopefully appreciates how far we have come. Hopefully in the Obama era, Americans will worry less about being offended and more about breaking through our remaining glass ceilings.