Race, After the Race

Michael - Eugene, Oregon
Entered on January 6, 2009

During the election I wrote to the Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon’s local paper, concerning recent racial incidents in Eugene—the beating of an elderly black man by two teenagers that left the man in critical condition, the spray-painted swastikas on highway overpasses, the broken windows of a black-owned business, the Jewish family’s house vandalized with anti-Semitic slurs. I linked those incidents to the campaign, and the way the White Supremacist movement was angered by Mr. Obama. I spoke of how I’ve been harassed when I jog, people throwing rocks and sodas at me from tall-tired trucks, men with shaved head suggesting I go back to Mexico. Yet I concluded that while racists would work themselves to a froth, there had already been a shift in American attitudes toward race. Mr. Obama’s candidacy might be historic, but was possible only because a majority of Americans were willing to consider him on his merits—an invisible, generational shift, as children growing up in an MTV-internet age of hip-hop stars and sports heroes have emerged, if not enlightened, at least conditioned differently. I concluded that ‘hope is already here’.

I never anticipated the call waking me the next morning from the University where I teach. The Department of Public Safety was investigating a message left for me there, and they thought I should hear it. I took a breath, still half asleep. A beep, static, then a drawled slurring: “Mr. Cooperman, we heard what you said… look to yourself, the problem is you… it’s written about hate and the thing is, Michael, Michael, you better watch what you say…”

It was chilling. It’s one thing to evaluate news from an exculpatory distance, and another to receive threats– to become the news. We speak of sit-ins and rallies, and forget what it must have felt like to be there, knowing that the desperate depend on violent reprisal. When I spoke of the man who was attacked, I didn’t consider him on the hospital bed, head swathed in bandages, or walking that cold, dark street, then sound of footsteps behind, the judgment of those first blows from the club, knocking him to the pavement, the steel-toed boots hammering down and him realizing, finally, that here was no mercy or reprieve.

I don’t know what it was like for that man, anymore than I know what it was like to sit in a Southern diner or the front of a bus and feel the eyes, the mounting rage. All I ‘suffered’ was an incoherent phone call from a fellow who didn’t like the idea that most people in his community are better than hate and thuggery. And now, with Mr. Obama elected and ascendant, it doesn’t take much courage to say that I still believe America is better than its racist past, better than those who would savage the vulnerable in the cowardly dark. Every spray-painted swastika, every slur reminds us what we reject—and in turning from such ugliness, we make the America of tomorrow.