Waldlaw Blog

Monday, January 12, 2009

Musings About Race

One week from tomorrow, Barack Obama will be inaugurated as the next President of the United States. As previously noted, my younger son and I will be flying to DC to share in this historic moment. For someone like myself, who grew up in Boston during the busing crisis, with an uncle who worked as an attorney for the Black Panther Party, issues of race and racism have always been in my consciousness. I have been acutely aware of the racial dynamics of the work I do -- first as a public defender in Oakland, where race played a constant and unmistakable role, and more recently in my international adoption work and my assisted reproduction work -- and I have often thought about the ways that racism permeates our society. I honestly wondered whether the United States of America was capable of electing an African American president, and remained skeptical even as my optimism grew this fall. I still sometimes think I will wake up and find that this has been a dream.... It feels like the world -- or at least our corner of the world -- has changed with the election of Barack Obama. We will have a Black man as our leader. His face is the face that will represent our country to the world. The forces that said that race defines us in a limiting way -- that Blacks are inherently inferior -- that we have to keep this country white -- have been pushed back in a profound and hopefully final way. My sons will grow up in a different world than the one I grew up in. Or so I thought. And then, early New Year's morning, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot in the back by a Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) police officer as he lay face down on an Oakland BART platform. Grant was Black. The officer who shot him was white. Same old story.... There is clearly much more to this story than meets the eye. From what we are hearing, the officer who gunned Grant down is not a lunatic, not a particularly violent man. I have to assume this was a terrible mistake. (Of course, he can't tell us, since he is likely to be arrested and charged with murder any day now, and any statement he makes will be used against him in court -- I am a lawyer, so I do know how this works.) As one knowledgeable commentator said yesterday, the officer who shot Grant almost certainly didn't pull the trigger because Grant was Black. But the fact that officers responded the way they did -- pulling the young men off the train and having them lie prone on the BART platform -- feeling a need to have weapons drawn -- hyping up rather than calming down a potentially volatile situation -- has everything to do with race. The most telling thing about this, for me, was the conversation I had about it with my 12-year-old -- the one I am taking with me to DC for the inauguration. When I told him that a BART officer had shot and killed a 22-year old on a BART platform on New Year's Eve, in plain view of a train full of passengers, my son's first comment was: "Let me guess -- the guy who got shot was Black, right?!" This is my 12-year old talking. He did not grow up in Boston during the busing riots. He was not around when the Black Panthers were being jailed and killed, with a beloved family member fighting for justice on their behalf. And yet.... My hope for all of us, as I look to the inauguration of Barack Obama next week, is that the babies I see around me now grow up in a world where they can hear about a young man being shot by a police officer and not feel safe in the assumption that the young man was Black. Then I'll know that our election of Obama as our President really did mean what I am hoping it will mean.


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