A year ago, in an action hailed worldwide as a constructive step forward in conquering racial division, 53 percent of American voters, of all ethnic backgrounds, chose a black man as president of the United States.
On election night, when Virginia’s returns were reported, and Barack Obama had carried the state, I could not believe what I was hearing.
Once, in my lifetime, every important politician in Vir-ginia stood rock solid behind the policy of “Massive Resistance” in any effort to secure equal rights for blacks. Now, Virginia’s electoral votes were going to a black man. Times have changed.
The injustices of our past have been corrected in many respects. Many black Americans now can pursue their ambitions in life. It has been, and still is, slow going, but things are better.
During the election campaign, and since President Obama has taken office, some people have claimed that opposition to him inevitably is built on racism. I do not accept this unequivocally. First, people voted for him. Second, too many decent people who are not racist or bigoted voted against Obama and disagree with him, because his policies are not in keeping with what they think is best for America. They dislike what he proposes for the country, and saying so is their right as citizens, indeed their duty. Race was not part of the picture.
However, during the election, I went into a professional office and was stunned to see on the bulletin board a cartoon of Barack Obama as crudely racist as anything that was devised by bigots in the raging days of the civil rights movement.
I protested. Demeaning blacks, or any ethnic or religious group, disgusts me. It disturbs me when I see e-mails or blogs that are racist in their criticism of President Obama, and when I hear or see this bigotry elsewhere.
I thought about this recently as I read what Bishop Terry Steib of Memphis said about racism. Born in the South at a time when the U.S. Constitution was interpreted to put black Americans behind everyone else, the bishop now serves an area that has a high percentage of blacks in its population, and he bluntly said that racism is with us still. As a black man himself, he has unique insights on racism, even if some tend to disagree with his perspectives.
In any case, several points pertain. President Obama is the object of racist slurs. Denouncing such slurs against him does not endorse his views. (In fact, his critics should realize that smears against his ethnicity are an unproductive technique. Diverting attention to his ethnicity does not address a problem in proposed policy. If what he proposes is bad policy, then explain why.)
The bottom line is not about arguing for or against the president’s policies. It is about racism. It is about what racist slams reveal. To use race to caricature the president, or to tolerate racist slurs against him, indicates that racism survives in our society. While racist smears against anyone trouble me, another concern is the fact that racism in our midst, over the past decade or two, has been on the rise, and despite changes for the better, things are far from perfect.
Blacks still are targets. Hispanics and Asians are targets as well. Racism hurts people, burdens society and is sinful. Racism insults not only the target but strikes the Catholic religion and great leaders of the Church such as Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI who time and again have proclaimed that every human life is precious, each is God’s wondrous creation.
Face it. Fight it, in the name of God, for the good of our country.
Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.