Wednesday, January 21, 2009

An historic occasion

Yesterday's big event and all the talk and media coverage leading up to it kept tossing me for a bit of a loop. I've been so excited about it for a while now, but I also kept being surprised how much hoopla there was. All the news articles about the jillions of people trying to go see the inauguration, the watching parties being set up nationwide (even worldwide), even the concern (realized, it turns out) that Internet connections would be rendered crippled by the burden of streaming the inauguration to millions of viewers. Was there ever so much interest in an inauguration before? I know I never watched one before this one.

Time and again I would muse about this and be pleased, impressed, excited, and then I'd hit a reality check hard. Oh yeah, that's because of it being historic, I would have to remind myself.

To me, all the excitement was about getting rid of the worst president (bar none) in U.S. history, replacing him with the most exciting, most promising one in my entire adult life. All the specific things about which I had hopes: the restoration of science to the public arena, the hope of real work on fixing the economy instead of bandaiding it, the restoration of stolen civil liberties and even expansion of missing ones, a renaissance of opportunity in the foreign policy arena to restore relations with former friends and reputation on the world stage, and so many other things. In short, restoring the damage of eight years that seemed bent on destroying the country on all levels.

And, oh yeah, there's also this thing about the new president having a different skin color than the previous forty-three. I guess that's important too.

So now I look at that attitude and wonder if I'm being an insensitive jerk or not. Sure, I know that if you grew up a black kid in an inner city, this is more than just a footnote in a history book, this is a meaningful thing that changes everything forever. And even if you're not a black kid, it's still important in the same way, just not as personally impactfully so. Intellectually I know this. But on some level I feel like it's important for other people, not for me, because I'm already past this. I have to remind myself that people still think skin color matters because the notion tends to slip my mind.

And when I think about that, I get this smug desire to espouse that as being enlightened, even more evolved. After all, the utopia we want to get to one day is not one where people say "hooray for a black person doing something good," it's where the color of her skin didn't even come up. Consider how rarely you hear anyone comment on equal rights for people with green eyes, or celebrates the achievements of green-eyed people, or announces National Green-Eyed History Month. That's where we want to get to with race, with gender, with sexual orientation, with anything that shouldn't be any more relevant than eye color. So if I'm already there, does that make me better?

That's the kind of thinking that raises red flags, and not just because of all those ABC After School Specials about how prejudice feeds on complacency, but because it really does. Are there ways in which I am racially insensitive, racially prejudiced, profiling, ways I don't notice? Probably. Being all happy with myself for being far more interested in the promise of a new president who seems to have the right ideas and the right talents and forgetting his skin color sounds like a recipe for the kind of complacency in which such things can continue to exist, unnoticed and unchecked.

But I can't quite force myself to be more excited by his skin color than by his ideas. Okay, there, I'm doing it again: that was unfair. It's not his skin color, it's the historical precedent. But I still can't get nearly as worked up about that as by any one of a dozen things off the top of my head. Maybe it would have been easier if our first black president had happened to be a jerk with bad ideas and no vision! Then I could focus on the historical precedent more. I'd be saying, pity about getting another moron for a president, but at least it proves white morons and black morons can both achieve the same things, and that's equality for you.

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