Integration, when I was in the fourth grade in East Tennessee, happened without much notice. The small number of black children who suddenly appeared at Rose School, the beautiful, now historic brick building that housed grades one through six, were assimilated without incident. Perhaps, it was because they were so small in number. Perhaps it was because there was no bus bringing them there. Perhaps it was because blacks had always lived in our town, albeit on the other side of town, where most of them would still live for many more years.
I didn’t notice at all. Having been one of the “others” in my own right since pre-school, when I had been subjected to my first incident of virulent anti-Semitism, I knew I was different, too; so more different kids seemed like a good thing to me.
I tested my mother’s Northern liberalism by openly dating black boys during high school and having them pick me up at the front door; Mom was charming although she did try to talk to me, calmly, about the difficulties of interracial dating. On the other hand, I picked up my good friend G. every Friday night and drove her to the projects to see her boyfriend and we both lied through our teeth about it to her mother who would have locked her in her room forever had she known she was involved with a black boy.
I have lived in the South most of my life, although I have spent a fair amount of time in the North also — summers on the Cape and Islands, school and work for ten years in New England, two stints living abroad, and a lot of overseas travel. I have made my peace with the South and would actually like to move farther South than Virginia; I dream of a house near the water in Beaufort, South Carolina, even though I hear it’s very hard to be a Democrat in that state.
Sometimes it’s hard to be a Democrat in Virginia, too, especially when the race for president involves a black man and people just don’t want to talk about it. Some Republicans actually make fun of it. And others disguise their racism by calling it something else. Or claiming, still, that Obama is a Muslim.
Actually people in the U.S. don’t want to talk much about race or class, witness the current financial crisis — which is a lot about class warfare and privilege and the greed of those who have money preying on those who have a lot less.
But I have been thinking more about race than any other issue lately because I think it’s going to make a difference in the presidential race. It’s going to make a difference even if we do talk about it. Although no one much is.
I wrote a column about it which appeared on HuffPo, but since then, as they say in the theater: A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.
In other words, in the couple of days that followed, all sorts of things began to happen. Besides the fact that while I was working on the article, I found pieces on Salon on race (finally, people were starting to write about it) and I had two rather extraordinary things happen to me on the same day.
Although I had personally run into both racism and ignorance in the small town in which I live (so much for those small town values Sarah Palin extols — although her comment was taken from a fascist writer Westbrook Pegler) I wasn’t quite prepared for a well- spoken, 80-year-old, undecided woman voter to tell me straight out that she was having trouble voting for Obama because he was, well, “I hate to have to tell you this, because you will think less of me, but, black.”
I spent twenty minutes with her on the phone, during which she admitted he was intelligent, committed, and a far better candidate than John McCain who she simply “could not vote for.” After I hung up, I just hoped I had convinced her to overcome her aversion to his race. She was born and raised in West Virginia, she said, and old attitudes were hard to break.
Another caller admitted to still being on the fence. She and her elderly mother were trying to gather all the information they could, but, still, she just couldn’t make up her mind. It seemed to her, she said, that all politicians were crooks and that none of them could get a darned thing done. I commiserated with her and told her that gridlock was a terrible thing and that Obama was committed to working with both parties but that it would be a challenge. I mentioned that McCain had been in Congress for 26 years and that it seemed to me that it was time for some new blood. We talked for a little longer and then she paused.
“Can I ask you a question?”
I allowed as she could indeed and that I would do my best to answer it.
She said that she had been wondering about something for some time and that she had asked and asked around and that no one she knew could help her out so that she thought she would ask me if I knew. She then said that it seemed to her that a lot more could get done if the president could just work alone and make all the decisions himself without congress and a lot of other people getting in his way, and didn’t I think so, and why wasn’t that a possibility?
I took a deep breath. I measured my voice. In no way was I going to condescend to this very sincere woman who was very seriously asking for my help.
“Well,” I said. “The Constitution of the United States provides for three branches of government…” And then I went on, and as simply as possibly, described the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches and their duties. I even explained how the House of Representatives is supposed to be the ones that makes the laws and sends them to the Senate and how in the best of all possible worlds, good laws are made and the president signs them, but if he does not agree, he won’t. I explained to her about checks and balances. And so on. I also told her that one man alone would be a dictator. And I named some more current dictators but sensing I was losing her, I mentioned Hitler. I heard her let out her breath in an Ohhhh.
“I see,” she said. “It’s more complicated than I thought. Thank you.”
We chatted some more and then I hung up and turned to the young man who runs the Obama headquarters.
“I just gave my first civics lesson,” I said, still in shock.
He shrugged. “A woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do.”
In the days that followed, I asked several people I ran into if they could name me the three branches of government and tell me why we had them.
"Wait, wait, I know this," most people said. "I do, I do!"
I am seriously starting to think we need a mandatory civics exam given to every graduating high school senior. And it needs to be passed before he or she gets his or her voter registration card.
But the fact that people don’t know the Constitution is only the half of it. The other half is that, despite what the right would have the American public believe, the truth is that there is so much incredible garbage being spouted by right-wing idiots out there on radio and television that the American public is wallowing in ignorance right up to their pupiks (Yiddish for bellybutton).
And they don’t even know it.