Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Sarah Palin: The Great White Hope

One of the most powerful productions of the late '60s was a play written by Howard Sackler (later made into a film) which fictionalized the drama surrounding the first black heavy weight boxing champion, Jack Johnson. At the heart of the drama was the inability of many in America to accept the prospect of a black champion, either in boxing or any other field.

We like to believe that we've moved beyond this. And in many ways we have. But scratch the surface of what remains a thin veneer of racial civility and this darker side of the American psyche is ready to re assert itself.

Sarah Palin's appearance at the Republican National Convention was a stunning moment in American political history for any number of different reasons. Most stunning to me was the reaction of the predominantly white middle to upper middle class convention crowd. You would have thought that they were Catholics greeting the pope or Dead Heads surging the stage at a Grateful Dead concert. And this for a woman who very few in that crowd knew anything about other than that she was a working mother from a small town whose values harked back to the era when white privilege was the predominant paradigm. The surface had been scratched; the veneer peeled away.

This hasn't been explored much in the national press. For good reason. It would be hard to substantiate given the reluctance of many white Americans to acknowledge racial prejudice.What makes this even more difficult to pin down is the fact that what is on display here is not the same kind of blatant racism that Jack Johnson encountered. Rather it has more to do with the threat that diversity poses to many white Americans, blue collar for the most part, but not exclusively so.

Much is made of Sarah Palin's small town values and "aw shucks" demeanor. What isn't said is how that contrasts with the savvy cosmopolitanism and multi-culturalism represented in the biography of Barak Obama. He is the face of the new America where race and ethnicity matter, but not as the great barriers they once were. In a growing number of social circles, in fact, diversity is celebrated.

Obama's popularity among younger university- educated voters underscores the contrast. To them he represents not just the future, but their own reality in a way that the 72 year old McCain (who keeps bringing up that war that this generation is sick and tired of hearing about), and lily white Sarah Palin (have you ever seen any people of color in any of her photos?) cannot.

Sarah Palin and, in different ways, John McCain, are the great white hopes. The question that needs to be asked is whether this represents America's best hope. Given our growing diversity and need to engage a global economy, I think not.

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