For about 30 years, I lived with and enjoyed privilege of which I was unaware. That privilege was white male privilege, and I took for granted that people would assume, in any social or economic interaction, that I was honest and worthy. When I walked the aisles of stores wearing a bulky coat, no one paid much attention. When I spoke to the tellers at banks, I barely had to show ID. When I applied for a job, I had full confidence that I would be assessed based completely on my competence and fitness for the job. I rarely hesitated to take the path to my destination I found most convenient, having confidence I would not be assaulted en route, even in a dark alley or midnight stairwell.
Gradually, I became aware that other people don't always have this experience. I witnessed the difficulty of a black woman to have her ID accepted at a bank. I noticed the way that store clerks or detectives watched black men in stores. I spent a very eye-opening pair of hours talking with a group of dark-skinned women in a Women of Color conference at the University. I read about hierarchical structures and the civil rights movement. I learned to recognize my own prejudices, acquired through assimilation into a dominant culture that is white and male. And I began my own transition.
Now the question has arisen, whether I consider the racist remarks of Rev. Jeremiah Wright as repugnant as the racism of David Duke, and Barack Obama's connection to that pastor as a warning bell of latent racist feeling.
Taken out of context, perhaps they are the same; but there is an inherent connection between power and racism. You cannot isolate racism without taking into account the power structure of the society that lies beneath it.
My ancestors owned the ancestors of Rev. Wright as if they were cattle. I've seen the photos of black men with their backs matted from neck to buttocks with scars from the whip. Slaves who ran away sometimes had their Achilles tendons cut, crippling them for life so that they could not run again. Or they were hanged. They were considered less than human – 3/5 human, to be precise. For two hundred and fifty years, this was their condition in America, and it was followed by another hundred years of Jim Crow oppression. Even today, a black man will spend ten times as much time in prison as a white man for possessing cocaine. He will be pulled over or stopped on the street for no reason beyond driving or running while black. Those are facts; you can look up the data if you like. That is simply the reality of our history, and to deny it or to assume that it has no affect on our current social structure is the height of naiveté.
(I'm not beating myself up over it. I never had a part in it, though, to my shame, I have at least twice observed racist actions without taking a stand against them – which is about as bad as participating. There aren't many people I admire more than Harriet Tubman.)
The power structure of our society is white and male. Again, look at our history. Women didn't even have the right to vote until the 1920's, just eighty years ago. We've had 43 presidents, and every one of them has been a white male. Even though white men constitute less than half of our population, they constitute the vast majority of our corporate CEO's and congressmen.
So when the country club puts up a sign that says "Whites Only," or "Men Only," it effectively shuts people of color and women off from access to power, to the policies and business agreements that affect their lives. It is oppression, and I find it repugnant.
On the other hand, when an American institution bars whites from membership to provide a safe place for a powerless group to organize and gather, can I honestly say that anyone is being barred from access to the power structures and economic activities that affect their lives?
I don't think so. The one is an attempt to prevent someone else from access to power, a means of stratifying society. The other is an attempt to gain power for oneself, a means of fighting for equality. I don't like it, and I believe it is not the most effective means, but it is not oppression.
It is this power differential that makes a comparison between the racist remarks of Rev. Wright and someone like David Duke irrelevant. They are completely different animals.
Which is not to say that I support Wright's views, or even fully understand them. I do not. It is only to say that I won't judge them by the same standard I would if they came from a white mouth. I won't line up the sheep with the cow to compare their meat and wool.
As for Barack Obama, I do not fear any aspect of racism from the man. He was hugely isolated from the very real though usually subtle racism that still permeates our society while he grew up in Hawaii, son of a white woman and an immigrant from Africa, and so did not assimilate those grievances with his mother's milk; at the same time, he has encountered and experienced racism in his work in places like Chicago, so he is not blind to it. While Obama sat in his pews, I suspect Rev. Wright spoke a whole lot more about black empowerment than white dismemberment, and since I'm all about empowering disempowered groups and individuals, I don't have a problem with that. I have not one iota of doubt that Mr. Obama will wield the power of the presidency with far more equality and even-handedness than his opponent would, and that he will judge people based on character over race far more reliably than Mr. McCain.
In short, I believe that Barack Obama, through his ancestry, heritage, and experience, is about as close as we're going to get to an ideal leader to finally break down the barrier of racism, bridge the gap between black and white, and bring Dr. King's vision to fruition. There are certainly positions of his with which I disagree – for instance, I don't think his health plan goes far enough, I'd like to see a commitment to cut the military budget by about three quarters, and I'd like to see him come out for marriage equality. Nevertheless, for the first time in my life, I will mark my ballot for president with joy, enthusiasm – and hope.