From George Washington to George W. Bush, probably the easiest part of an artist painting the presidential portrait has been selecting skin tone for the canopies; until today that is.
As President-elect Barack Hussein Obama II places his hand on Abraham Lincoln’s Bible, officially becoming the commander in chief, we will cross the long-restricted bridge of racial inclusion.
Much has been written and discussed about the historical importance of electing America’s first black president. The United States should be proud to have finally breached its greatest color barrier and many have proclaimed that we are now a “post-racial” country.
In reality, though, the need to celebrate electing a black man to occupy the highest office proves that race is still a major preoccupation for many in the U.S. To be more blunt; racism and hate crimes are alive and kicking. And the threat isn’t limited to President Obama and his family.
Most 2007 hate crimes were racially motivated. The “FBI Hate Crimes Report, 2007” indicates that, of “7,621 single-bias incidents, 50.8 percent were motivated by a racial bias.” The balance originated from sexual-orientation, religious, ethnicity/national origin, mental or physical disability biases.
Of the more than 9,000 reported hate crimes, 5,408 were categorized as violent “crimes against persons.” The rest were defined as crimes against property, but were nonetheless deemed as hate crimes. While the majority of hate crimes were attributed to whites — 62.9 percent of the 6,965 known offenders — 20.8 percent were committed by blacks, 9.8 were considered unknown races and the remainder were by “other” races.
Racial discrimination can be attributed to people of all colors. Although the American Psychological Association stops short of claiming humans are hardwired for racial prejudice, it explains that all humans tend to stereotype other groups, often by associating negative attributes to the entire group of “others.” Stereotyping, the APA claims, is a means by which the human brain easily categorizes disparities between members of different groups.
Racism, on the other hand, is not a natural process, but rather is an individual choice that may be influenced by social surroundings and collective perceptions. Hatred is both taught and learned. Some even cling to bigotry as if it were some sort of family heirloom.
Obama received Secret Service protection in May 2007 as a result of escalating threats. The Secret Service recently reported that “Obama has received more death threats than any incoming president in history,” according to a Southern Poverty Law Center.
The SPLC set up a “Teaching Tolerance” website in December to help K-12 teachers deal with growing school racism. On its page entitled “Responding to Obama: America at the extremes,” the SPLC admonishes, “[A] rash of hate crimes and bias incidents in the wake of his [Obama’s] election show clearly that America is far from entering a ‘post-racial’ era….”
One incident that followed Obama’s election involved four North Carolina State University students, who painted “Let’s shoot that (N-word) in the head” on a free-speech wall, according to The Associated Press. In another episode elementary school children in an Idaho town were reported by school officials as chanting “assassinate Obama.”
Racial epithets, swastikas and “Go Back to Africa” were spray painted on houses and cars in Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Times reported. The Associated Press reported that customers of a general store in Maine could even place $1 bets “on a date when Obama would be killed,” with the comment, “Let’s hope someone wins,” scrawled on the bottom of the betting board.
The list goes on, with hundreds of similar incidents being reported immediately after the election, including cross burnings and black figures symbolically lynched in effigy. We are naïve and irresponsible to think these crimes should be dismissed or ignored as mere post-election anomalies.
Throughout the lengthy campaign, incidents of potential race-related violence surfaced. One of the most visible involved the alleged plot by two neo-Nazi skinheads to assassinate Obama after a planned bloody rampage to murder 88 black students and behead another 14 black people.
Solutions to the diseases of racism and bigotry are a great undertaking and may never be truly cured, but they begin with education and tolerance.
It’s a significant irony that the one-time civil rights attorney’s inauguration follows one day after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Perhaps with our newly-sworn president, White House paint-by-numbers sets will have more skin tones on the palettes.