Michelle Obama has all of a sudden become the center of attention in the election because she is perceived by John McCain’s people to have made Barack Obama vulnerable to an attack on his loyalty to the country.
She was speaking shortly after Obama had drawn ahead in the primary race, and it looked like he would win, and she said that, “for the first time in my adult life, I’m really proud of my country.”
But I not only heard what she said, I understood it, like many people who happen to be of African descent in America.
Pride of country, loyalty, patriotism, etc., are all emotions that have ebbed and flowed for African Americans with the force of the damage directed against them historically, and many whites have had a problem with what they perceive to be the ungrateful black who should love their country right or wrong.
Well, that sentiment is possible if you have not been on the receiving end of a whole of bad stuff that intervened in your attempt to love America with all your heart–stuff like what happened to many blacks who saw the bodies of their loved ones floating in the waters of Katrina–that made you question whether the country really loved you.
This has been the case for the past 28 years since Ronald Reagan and his mean-spirited conservatism came in and sat down in the White House, and refused to honor the history of struggle that we called civil rights that virtually justified a new wave of vigilantism against blacks and legitimized government withdrawal of resources, fostering a mood that criminality was the real urban problem, passing laws to lock ‘em up and throw away the keys.
Let’s see. Michelle Obama is 44 years old, less 28 years finds that she was 16 years old when Ronald Reagan came into office. So, she is right that for most of her adult life she has had to witness–and probably argue against–the attack on Affirmative Action that has weakened it to the present state that something called “diversity” has been legitimized, but no one quite knows what it is.
She has had to witness the upsurge in the drug trafficking together with low-wage warfare in urban neighborhoods that if people really loved us could have been stopped.
She has had to listen to government officials argue about the “test-score gap” and “children born to female headed households” and other narratives that clearly possessed a subtext of Black inferiority.
And she has had to think about a country that would rather go to war to enrich a relative few rather than to spend money fixing up dilapidated schools and neighborhoods, and restoring the lives of the poor and homeless.
These are the things that if you were Black, you questioned the loyalty of those in power who trashed the notion of American Democracy and the high hopes that the framers set out for the country. You felt, like many of us, that the country had been on an upward trajectory with the movement for civil rights that helped Hispanics to vote, empowered women to seek equal rights, established protection for the disabled and proposed fair housing for us all.
So I understand Michelle Obama. The real truth slipped out, but her comment really had nothing to do with her basic pride in being an American or her loyalty to the premises of American democracy. It has to do with the feeling that there has been a theft of Democracy by a gang with narrow goals of diverting the resources of the country to their own interests.
That is not an America worth being proud of. The America worth being proud of is one that restores the hope of those who have not achieved the American dream that there is coming a new regime of sensitivity to the human condition, one which takes concrete steps to open up opportunities to make America a democracy that the world also can be proud of again.
She senses that it can happen for the first time in a long time, and so do I.
But this feeling, so much embedded in the desire for change, is being corrupted by the vile interpretation of commentators and others whose notion of pride, patriotism and loyalty to country is placed on a bumper sticker, not on the heart.
Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director of the African American Leadership Center and Professor of Government and Politics.
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