White Like Me

John J. Hopkins Mar. 19, 2011, 7:00am


In 1964, a bold and daring movie was released, based on a science fiction concept, rooted in Sociology 101. "Black Like Me," starring veteran actor James Whitmore as the subject of the experiment in which through chemical injection a white reporter was turned into a black worker, was nothing less than a sensation. I remember studying the book upon which it was based in Social Studies class at Assumption High School in East St. Louis, circa 1968, monitored by one of the great influences on my life, Fr. James Geneseo. Both the movie and the book were exposes of the thinly hidden racist elements of American culture, a laboratory for the study of the human element.

Fr. Geneseo loved both book and movie, but always felt it was a time capsule, a reflection of American society which was surely to evolve, to get better as time passed. He is now gone, but I wonder what his comments might be in a post-Obama America.

The essence of racism is to base a decision solely on skin color or ethnicity. It differs from the notion of stereotypes, which may or may not be true, may or may not be flattering. It groups, blocks and categorizes without regard to the individual, wise or fool. But most importantly, racism knows no color barrier. The key is the societal reaction of non-tolerance of any racism, hopefully applied across the board. But that is not the case, and it is a shame that such a dichotomy is tolerated.

The recent revelations at National Public Radio branding of all Tea Party members as racists in a blatant attempt to curry favor with leftist leaning donors, speaks volumes in its reaction. The forced resignations of top executives followed swiftly by the long overdue call for the abolition of public funds for NPR -by their own admission, they do not need the money, and it chafes the majority who see tax dollars used in such an obviously partisan manner- have brought the term again into public scrutiny. What truth be told is that an examination of the nature of racism in American life is likewise long overdue.

Closer to home, the issue is coming around again in the context of the analysis of the upcoming vote in the Spring on the retention of the entire group of Associate Judges.

By way of explanation. The circuit court is comprised of two types of judges, one group elected by the people - Circuit Judges - then voted back in or not in retention votes. The other group is appointed - Associate Judges - by the aforementioned Circuit Judges, then evaluated every four years for retention by the same group.

Despite the enormous power vested in the Associate Bench, their selection and retention votes are shrouded in secrecy. Therein lies the problem.

At present, of the 13 Associates Judges up for the retention vote, two - Duane Bailey and Ellar Duff, are Black. Both are from my home town of Alton. I respect and personally like both, but, in my practice I have never appeared in front of either, and therefore have no professional opinion. Others, likewise without a true basis for an opinion, are unfortunately not so restrained.

In printed commentary and more forcefully, in a letter sent not only to all of the deciding Circuit Judges but all elected Democratic officials in Madison County, a loose coalition called the "Alton African American Leadership Council," have demanded a positive vote on Bailey and Duff as a debt owed to the Black community in return for long time loyalty to the Democratic party. As good and loyal Democrats, the judges are expected to honor this obligation and retain on the basis not of skill but skin.

Such a choice reduces the candidates to symbols, or even worse, merely tokens. Social engineering, the righting of perceived wrongs by governmental largesse, has its place, but it insults both Judge Duff and Judge Bailey to say that they cannot be evaluated by the terms dreamed of by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - "not the color of their skin, but the content of their character."

I, for one, would give them that chance and the "coalition" should be embarrassed to take it away. Not all decisions are based on prejudice. Not all failures are based on race, nor successes based on entitlements. In the upcoming vote, I hope that dignity and honor is the criterion, treating each as individuals and not merely as political capital.

The age of Obama was to herald a new dawn in race relations, one in which the powers of "Hope and Change" were to usher in a time of true and respectful equality. Truth be told, such a dream was flawed from the start, fueled as it was by a form of racism at its core. In his 2008 run, Obama received more than 90 percent of the Black vote (I use the term "Black," rather than "African American," as I find the latter to be not only inaccurate in many cases, but divisive and demeaning), this despite major philosophical differences, a vote made therefore solely on the basis of race, or racism in pure form. The best example would be General Colin Powell, former national hero, now diminished.

Barack Obama and I, while we are different and disagree on many issues, share several common threads in our make up. We both like the White Sox over the Cubs, both have struggled, at times in vain, to break an addiction to menthol cigarettes, and we have both been greatly and positively influenced by our mothers. Our white mothers.

Obama's mixed heritage is more often than not, shoved to the side. His decision to promote only his exterior heritage, resulting in the aforementioned racially driven vote, was obviously successful. But it divides rather than heals, it segregates rather than embraces, inflames rather than calms. It promotes the type of misguided strong arm tactics like the one promoted here on the retention vote. Such a clearly flawed ideology must be rejected, and let the chips fall were they may.

It is the true path of the righteous. Be not afraid.

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