A conversation about race and politics


A fellow I know rather well came up to me recently and said, “What do you think of your leader now?” I assumed he was referring to the deal the United States seemed to be willing to make with Iran in connection with its nuclear ambitions.

Fortunately, due to French objection, among others, the deal, which would have virtually assured the success of Iran’s nuclear bomb, fell through. I mumbled something about “incompetence.” The man leaned over and whispered in my right ear, “He is a Muslim and a Socialist.” I looked back and reiterated, “I think incompetence is just enough.” He then tapped his left arm with the fingers on his right and he said “It’s his skin color.” I became angry and responded, “That’s not right; incompetence does not know any skin color.”

I walked away from that conversation upset. Right-wing Republicans claim that they are labeled as racist every time they criticize the president. The conversation made me think that perhaps it really is true that opposition to President Obama has to do with race. The conversation was particularly troubling to me, since there is plenty to talk about it in connection with the failures of this administration.

President Obama has given us spying scandals, the continuation of international embarrassment thanks to unconvicted suspects at Guantanamo Bay, unanswered Benghazi questions, a disaster in the rollout of health care, tepid and inconsistent foreign policy decisions on Iran, and a host of other inadequacies. We elected George Bush, II, with a similar lack of experience prior to President Obama, and he gave us an inadequate response to warnings ahead of 9/11 and two long wars that were fought inconclusively at best.

One can only speculate how the United States would have fared with someone like General Colin Powell, Hillary Clinton, or John McCain. Each of these candidates had their own baggage, but at least perhaps they would have put together a more capable team. Even Leon Panetta, Bill Clinton’s confidant and former Obama Secretary of Defense, seemed unafraid to go on Sunday talk shows and express reservations about the President’s policies.

A few years ago, I participated in the activities of an organization called the Inns of Court. One of the judges suggested that all of the participants take a test that new judges took when he went to judge school. An identical fact pattern was passed around to different groups. The only difference between the fact patterns were the names. One group had names that sounded African-American, and another had names that sounded lily white. The question was asked whether the accused should be held for court after a preliminary hearing. Even the young, mostly liberally inclined lawyers clearly were more likely to hold those for court who had the African-American sounding names.

I recall trying cases for African-Americans criminally accused in federal court. It was difficult to get the judge even to permit us to ask jurors questions delving into their racial attitudes. “Of course everyone had negative attitudes about blacks,” said the judge, and therefore he did not feel it was necessary for us to delve into those attitudes in a way that would help us determine who might be fair notwithstanding their own admitted prejudice. North Central Pennsylvania has never been a bastian of tolerance for those with different colored skin, unconventional religious preferences, or odd-sounding last names. More than one influential member of this community has indicated to me that he thought he faced considerable discrimination based on the fact that he was Catholic. I do not know if this is true, but I have no reason to question his sensitivities.

We must all admit and acknowledge that racial attitudes affect our thinking, often in a negative way. When we bring race into our conversation, either as Republicans who believe they are unfairly chastised for criticizing their president or as Democrats, who believe that bigotry is real and tangible, we perform a terrible injustice. At the very least, perhaps we need to have an honest conversation about race and the role it plays in the American psyche.

Perhaps even I was wrong to be proud of the fact that the United States would elect, twice, a man of color, notwithstanding his obvious lack of experience and competency shortfalls. Likewise, criticism of our President should not be muted based upon the color of his skin. He may not have done a very good job, and even his supporters note that the slow economic recovery from the Bush disaster may not assist Obama’s legacy.

As a nation, we have managed to survive two not very good Presidents, of different parties. Hopefully, the next time around we will stay away from elections based upon affability, good looks, family reputation, or easy clichs. Perhaps we should be looking for an extremely experienced Governor or someone with a lot of networking experience in the United States Senate. After all, it would not be a bad idea after the unhappy run of luck we have had as a nation to have someone in office like a boring Harry Truman or Gerald Ford.

The middle-of-the-roaders will eventually rise up and demand equality, especially if we can advance the cause of campaign finance reform which removes money as a turnstile of elective politics in the United States. Without unnecessary appeals to irrelevant matters such as race, gender, color, creed or religion, and absent donors who are permitted to purchase candidate views, it is possible that we can continue to survive and thrive as a nation. We have had a rough patch of choppy waters, but at least we have a future to look forward to. Right now it appears that our future is a debt-ridden roadway, littered with politicians who have failed or refused to undertake tax reform and entitlement alterations.

What is the answer to these problems? Entitlements such as Social Security either have to be cut or taxes to fund them must be raised. Perhaps the compromise will be that both actions must be taken. The same is true for every other entitlement program. A tax system that has nothing to do with tweaking social policy would also be good for the United States.

We permit deductions from taxes for mortgage interest, only to benefit banks and homeowners. Perhaps it is time to let the marketplace decide whether people should buy or rent. These and other not so radical ideas will need to be considered by principled politicians, if we are to reign in our current system of cannibalistic politics.

Rieders, who practices law in Williamsport, is past president of the Pennsylvania Trial Lawyers Association.