Thanks, Obama

Barack Obama is the greatest president of my lifetime. Granted, I’ve only been alive for a handful of them – I was born on the tail-end of Reagan’s reign, then lived through a couple of Bushes and a Clinton – so, slim pickings for a favorite.

But in eight years, Obama reformed aspects of our country that no one thought we could ever agree upon, let alone do anything about – and if you’re going to argue that things like Obamacare are “huge wastes of money and time” then go ahead and eat your own shit. Obamacare is the only thing that gave me access to anti-anxiety medication and therapy during a year of my life that could have been my last.

Is the Healthcare.gov system flawed? Yes. I ended up paying out the ass in taxes because of glitches in the Obamacare system – money that I didn’t have, and of course wasn’t excited to pay – but the program gave me access when I needed it, and I understand that nothing worth doing is ever done right the first time around.

Which is what I admire so completely about Barack Obama – he never gave up on this country, even when the majority of it pushed back at him. He had to fight for every inch he gained during his presidency, not only as a democrat taking over a dismantled democracy after eight years of Bush II, but as a black man – the first black man – to assume the Oval Office.

And yes, that is a big fucking deal.

For perspective: Slavery in America was abolished in 1863, just over 150 years ago – that’s, what, three generations? Four, maybe? – and the American Civil Rights Movement happened only half a century ago. My mom was alive for it, and she’s not even 60.

Sure, we (mostly) updated our legal systems to reflect the “new” morals of our society, but expecting the change to naturally continue to happen after a few years’ reform is ignorant, especially considering that, although overt segregation was largely outlawed throughout the ’60s and ’70s, plenty of nefarious laws and regulations were allowed to live on – and continue to be created – which provide structures for societal segregation to continue under the guise of drug or poverty policing.

Drug or poverty policing: Americans are comfortable with those. The poor are scary, and so are drug addicts. But what good does throwing a heroin addict or homeless woman in jail do? Or fining them? How will that help the individual to improve his life, lift-up-by-the-bootstraps, American-fucking-Dream style?

Is the American Dream only for people who don’t need help attaining it?

Policing the poor or ill – because addiction is a disease – are things America is okay with because, when Americans think about the people who use drugs or the people who are in poverty, they often think about people who are not white, because often they aren’t white due to the massive walls constructed around those with fewer resources. It’s as if, in America, we force the disadvantaged into a locked cage and then scream, “WHY DON’T YOU JUST GET OUT ALREADY”? while pelting them with rubber bullets and rotten fruit.

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Congrats, America! You are the literal worst. Image courtesy of I don’t know but I didn’t make it.

Whether it’s an American problem or a developed world problem or a human being problem, it’s a problem, and it’s called implicit bias. It’s real, and every single one of us is both victim and perpetrator.

Allow me to provide a personal example:

A couple of years ago, while I was completing my teaching credential at CSU East Bay, I was flipping through social media on a break before class and a photograph caught my eye. In it, a tall, young, black man wearing a dark polo and blue jeans was standing in front of an American Flag with a few older white men standing around him. They were in what looked like it could be a court room. The old white men were smiling, the young black man looked stern, with his hands folded in front of him.

Without reading the caption, my brain said, “this is a picture of a young black criminal and the old white men who just caught or convicted him.”

Now, I’m an offensively progressive liberal. I was in the Gay-Straight Alliance for four years in middle and high school; I attended anti-war marches in Washington when my peers were still going to fucking Maroon 5 concerts; I supported Howard Dean even after the “Dean Scream” doomed his candidacy; I’m a god-damn public educator. I live in the left. The far, far left. Most of the time.

I have never been a racist; assuming something about that picture of that black man and those white men does not make me a racist, just like cops shooting young, black men does not make those cops racist. Implicit bias is very different from racism, because, when confronted, it can be corrected.

Racism is conscious; implicit bias is, well, implicit. 

But that photograph that I saw, the one that I immediately pegged as “yet another image of a black criminal”? When I read the caption, it turns out that “criminal” was a high school senior who had been accepted into all eight Ivy League colleges.

His name is Kwasi Enin and he’s a first-generation Ghanaian-American.

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Enin back in 2014, beaming. He chose Yale, by the way.

I can’t find the original image that set me into a spiral of self-hate and questioning. My assumption is that many people mistook the message of that story, but were more vocal than I was about the misconception it conveyed, and whatever news source that had published it took it down and replaced the image with a more appropriate image for the circumstances, like the gorgeous picture of Enin above.

Are you thinking, “He got into those 8 schools because of affirmative action”? Or “If he weren’t the child of immigrants, he wouldn’t have been accepted”? Or “Because he’s underprivileged, he had access to programs that gave him an unfair advantage”?

Guess what: That’s your implicit bias.

I work closely with children who’re working on getting into college, and it’s fucking hard to do. Do schools often have minority quotas that they need to fill to meet diversity standards? Yes, and for the most part schools do this so that their student population will reflect the demographics of the nation.

And yes, his immigrant parents pushed him to do better for himself than they ever could do for themselves. If you take “immigrant” out of that sentence, I believe it applies to all parents with a vision for their child’s future – the fact that they were immigrants didn’t get him into college; the fact that they gave a fuck about Enin’s success did.

He’s the first in his family to attend a U.S. college, but his parents – both nurses – are educated, and he went to a high school on Long Island, in New York. He was by no means the “underprivileged black kid” everyone loves to hate or hates to love; he’s a smart kid with supportive, educated parents who accomplished incredible academic feats because he was motivated in the right way by the right people.

But his acceptance still made the news, and news outlets still decided to use inadequate photographs, because the system is so tired and confused at this point that none of us know when to celebrate, when to be angry, or when to even acknowledge amazing people like Enin.

America does have problems with racism, but those are not the problems tearing the country to pieces. Racists attend Westboro Baptist Church and shoot cops at peaceful protests; most of America understands that racists are at best ignorant zealots and at worst dangerous terrorists.

America doesn’t like to admit when things are beyond our control, though; this is why people deny things like global warming. It’s scary – we could be ruining the world, every day, and there’s nothing we can do about it without making dramatic, immediate, global changes? Better ignore that and focus on Taylor Swift’s latest beef with Kim Kardashian. Much easier to digest.

We’re quickly steering this vessel toward the end of the Earth because we all make assumptions about each other but never pause to examine what those assumptions say about us as a country. It is not shameful to confront our ingrained biases: it’s courageous. If we do it as a country – supporting one another through the process – we can change our world.

In truth, we will still change our world if we continue to hide and cower and point fingers and fight.

I mean, we’ve already started. Do you like how it’s beginning to look?

 

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