John Paul II was a very popular pope, but, in many eyes, he left behind a big mess. There was a joke about a man who gets to heaven and asks God: “Will we ever have another Polish pope?” God replies, “Not in my lifetime.”
Thinking down the road a bit, here is a question: Will we have another black president anytime soon? My sense is that you don’t have to be on your deathbed to answer, “Not in my lifetime.”
Speculative or counterfactual history is a useful tool for understanding many things. You change a fact in history and try to understand what the impact of that change might have been. Here is a sample. During the 2008 primary campaign, Senator Obama makes a number of uncharacteristic blunders. As a result, he fades, and Hillary Clinton wins the nomination.
In the general election, she swamps McCain and Palin, winning by 11 million votes. Once in office, she addresses the economic crisis and health care reform with policies that are almost identical, if stylistically different, from those that an Obama Administration would have pursued. She winds down two disastrous wars and pursues a “balanced” foreign policy. Hers is typically referred to as “the third Clinton Administration,” centrist, seeking progressive goals where there were openings given the economic situation of the country. A description that also fits the Obama Administration.
One big thing is different. Far right attempts to launch reactionary strikes, including the fake “grass roots” Tea Party movement, never really get off the ground. While there is real hatred of “the Clintons,” it never achieves the critical mass that enables it to bring the federal government to its knees. The Republicans can’t maintain the discipline needed to block all of her initiatives. There are no huge rallies in which the television cameras show the contorted faces of hate-filled white people with signs proclaiming the end of freedom or picturing the president as a chimpanzee. Fox News reporting occasionally does show some balance.
While the number of people using the country’s only functioning safety net program, food stamps, is soaring, nobody refers to Mrs. Clinton as the “food stamp president.” And, although her policies are quite similar to those that Obama would have pursued, she is not accused of being “foreign.”
Despite the country’s ongoing economic crisis, especially in employment and housing, Mrs. Clinton wins re-election in a landslide in 2012, crushing Mitt Romney, a candidate who proves that the Republicans could find an even worse choice than the loose cannon McCain. Against the odds, the Democrats retain control of the Senate and regain the House.
There appears to be only one clear explanation for these different outcomes: the race of the Democratic candidate. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that the intensity of the opposition to President Obama is driven by his race rather than any policies. It is about who he is, rather than what he has done.
In the movie The Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three, bad guys hijack a New York City subway train and demand a $10 million ransom. When things fall apart, the leader is caught on the subway tracks and, not wanting to face life in prison, steps on the third rail, the one that provides power to the train. He is immediately electrocuted.
The term “third rail” is popular in politics. It used to refer to anyone who touched Medicare or Social Security, but that may no longer apply. When race is used as a third-rail issue, it only electrocutes one party, the Democrats. For Republicans, race has been an invaluable wedge issue going all the way back to 1964. (Prior to that, it was pretty much the exclusive property of virulently racist Southern Democrats.)
But, in the case of modern Democrats, it is always the potential third rail. Democratic candidates have to make clear that they aren’t going to do anything special for black people, without, at the same time, alienating them as part of the party’s base. A tricky balancing act that only Bill Clinton has ever really mastered. For Obama, it is a lost cause for obvious reasons since he is one of “them.” A lose-lose in which he is seen by whites to being doing all kinds of things for his black constituents, when, in fact, he is doing very little.
For Republicans, it is the path to victory, although it has transformed them from a national to a largely southern and virtually all-white party. Writing off black voters, they seek to convince whites that Democrats are giving away the store to parasitic minorities, especially blacks, who, in their rendering, live on welfare, food stamps and 40-ounce malt liquors that they have purchased with those food stamps. And there is always the threat of the menacing black man who will invade white people’s homes, thus the need for the household AK47 and “stand your ground” laws.
In the current campaign, the Republicans don’t need the notorious Willie Horton or the welfare queen who buys vodka with food stamps. They have the president himself, or, as they put it, the “food stamp president.” Because they have been at this for so long, the current Republican nominee’s black support is now approaching zero, an extraordinary negative achievement. And it is an achievement that means that he has to get even more white votes to win. E pluribus unum, right?
Given its overwhelming black and Hispanic population, the Virgin Islands is obviously living in a parallel universe when it comes to presidential politics. If Virgin Islanders could vote in presidential elections, they would be ignored and taken for granted by the Democrats and disdained as “others” by the Republicans, large donors excepted, thank you very much. Someone like Romney would be absolutely trounced.
But there is an important subtext to our ongoing national saga. In different ways, because race is a third rail issue, and because Republicans need plausible deniability to the charge that they are racists, virtually all useful discussion has been shut down. Too volatile, better to not talk about it. And, since the passage of the civil rights acts in the 1960s, there is a broad sense, at least among whites, that our “race problem” has been solved. President Obama’s election proves it even further. Remember our short-lived “post-racial America.”
Despite our country’s tortured racial history, the need for some equivalent of a “truth and reconciliation” mechanism never even got on the radar screen in the United States. As a result, many whites now believe that they are the victims of racism, while many blacks believe that “nothing has changed.” A dangerous combination.
The outcome is a dialogue of the deaf. And this is where the Virgin Islands and the mainland tend to converge. An unfortunate convergence it is. In both places, whites generally focus on current (black) behaviors and norms, and blacks generally focus on historic (white) injustices. How we treat one another, and how we can build a better future, tends to get lost in these self-justifying non-discussions.
White mainlanders, after visiting the Virgin Islands, often mention the rudeness or hostility of local people and the indifference of the police. As a white mainlander, I can confirm the accuracy of many of these observations. But there is more to the story. First, as someone who has been on Main Street in St. Thomas on a big cruise ship day, I am sometimes stunned by the behavior, including what can generously be labeled racial insensitivity, of the tourists. This is the “put yourself in their (Virgin Islanders) place for a minute” message.
Then there is the second “but.” It is the “now you know what it feels like” message. Quite often, Virgin Islanders treat outsiders the way mainland whites treat minorities at home, that is, with thinly veiled disrespect and indifference, and occasional outright hostility.
These are not good areas in which to be “in synch” with mainstream America. It is unlikely that we will see rapid economic improvement in the near future. In these difficult circumstances, social cohesion is almost certainly going to be one of the keys to maintaining successful and peaceful communities. That cohesion isn’t very likely to be achieved if there isn’t honest discussion across group lines.
That honest discussion should focus on a vision for what “we” (all of us, not just my group) want our communities to look like. It won’t work if there is the usual finger pointing, blame shifting or incessant focus on the past. Like everyone else on earth, Virgin Islanders are going to live in the future. It would be very useful to define that future at home, rather than taking the unhealthy cues coming from the mainland.