It’s all about lines.
It’s about the difference between wanting to be right, and being right.
It’s about where your comfort level ends, and your fears begin.
It’s about social conditioning. It’s about how sometimes you shock yourself with the things you don’t say out loud. That voice – you know the one – that asks the questions that make you ashamed of yourself.
Or maybe they don’t.
Let me tell you a story.
In the summer of 2008, America was in the heat of battle in more ways than one. We were surging in Iraq. We were fighting in Afghanistan. And with the Presidential campaign coming out of Iowa, we as a nation were facing a question nobody would say out loud.
The way I remember this story, Senator Obama was on the campaign trail and made a stop in Louisville, not so much because he sought to carry solid-red Kentucky, but because Indiana was in play and because John Yarmuth endorsed Obama’s run for President before almost anyone else. I had heard of this guy who gave this speech – they kept talking about The Boston Speech, using the word ‘electrifying’ – and I was wondering if Hillary Clinton’s time wasn’t already past. I mean, Barack even sounded a little like The Rock. And he was coming to my town. For free.
This line was around the block, wrapped around the east end of a colossal Convention Center – two city blocks’ worth of meeting space in the heart of the downtown business district. There were so many that the last of us were admitted into an overflow area so we could watch on screens. Our disappointment at not seeing the speech exactly live was somewhat abated by a promise that The Man himself would shake hands along the rope line separating us from the video screens. Abby and I and our six-year-old daughter stood and watched and listened. Caitlyn was very impressed.
The Man appeared, and you’d have thought Elvis was in the building. He tried to dampen the applause – there was, after all, a speech to give. No luck. The crowd was ready to love this man, and love him they would.
And then – one of those Obama moments – a young lady in the front was overcome, and I don’t want to say she passed out because I wasn’t looking directly at her, but she definitely swooned. And without missing a beat, as if it happened all the time, The Man tossed the unopened water bottle on the podium to the young man next to her, and he caught it. Because people routinely pass out when I come into a room, right?
The speech itself is a blur. I don’t really remember it as anything other than what I wanted to hear at the time – bring the military home, figure out an energy policy, get us some health insurance, fix tax policy. I remember thinking that he seemed more specific about what he wanted than Hillary or any of the Republicans, who still haven’t in 2015 told me what they plan to do about healthcare or jobs. I remember meeting a few people there and they seemed excited. The curtain opened and in he strode – tall, thin, smiling, shaking every hand he could reach – I was too far back for any hope of a handshake, so I lifted my daughter on my shoulders and stood back so she could see.
The next thing I remember we were walking to our car, a few blocks away. And I remember my wife asking my daughter, “Honey, do you know who that man was?” Caitlyn’s response was memorable: “Yes mommy, he’s the President.” Hang on to that for a second.
Fast forward a couple of weeks. I had decided to roll the dice with the man who who threw a stranger a water bottle instead of asking for his staff to help. I had a feeling the other guy probably wasn’t that guy, and I believe a lot in character. I made a small donation to his campaign, mostly to get a window sticker for my car, and I started mentioning to people that maybe they should take a look at the guy – he seemed really smart, and there was something about him that made you want to believe. Most people seemed to agree – America needed a smart guy and this guy was definitely smart.
This time I was drawing a line. My sticker had come in and I was in the driveway with a level, drawing a line on my back window so I could apply the sticker in a way that wouldn’t make me twitch. I’m somewhat OCD like that. It was a beautiful day – Abby and Caitlyn were in the front yard, Caitlyn tooling around on her training wheels and Abby talking to Gina* (*names changed to protect the privacy of certain folks) next door, with their kids playing everywhere. Eventually Dwight* wandered over from next door and we sparked up our usual driveway banter as I applied my new Obama/Biden sticker to the rear window of my pickup truck. The crowd around us dwindled – the ladies parted to start dinner, and the kids lost interest and wandered away. I didn’t know we were waiting on it, but finally we were alone, Dwight and I. As we stood over the line between our shared double-driveway, he said to me, “You’re not really going to vote for that n****r, are you?”
I blinked, and said, “Yes. And you should too. His deal is the best for working people like us.”
And his reply? “You might be right, but I just can’t make a n****r the President.”
I had to walk away.
And I had to think. About lines.
About what made him cross that line with me. Does my Caucasian skin mean that I’m in the I Understand Racism club? Am I in on the inside joke? Do we think alike because our skin is the same color? Do you think that about black folks?
About the lines we draw in our minds. A black man can be my neighbor, coworker, and friend, but can’t be my boss, my leader, my President. Used to be we didn’t accept black folks as our peers, but that line has moved. Equals is fine with us, but leadership, to a degree, depends on situational submission, and now things are getting real.
About the things that those lines reveal. That little voice – remember the shame I talked about – that you ignore when it tells you to cross the street, or you get nervous with a black man behind you at an ATM. The one that tells you that a group of black kids out after dark must be up to no good. The one that tells you what a thug looks like, and what a respectable black man wears. The one that puts the ice ball in your stomach when your daughter introduces you to her new boyfriend, and a young black man looks you in the eye and shakes your hand.
About how those lines are drawn. Remember I asked you to hold onto that thought, of six-year-old Caitlyn telling Abby that the young Illinois Senator looked like the President. And thirty-six year old Dwight essentially telling me that all he saw was a n****r. When in life do we cross the line from Caitlyn to Dwight?
About the comfort line – are you really okay with this, or just choking back your fears because you know it’s wrong to feel this way?
About the lines in which we would stand in November. Where would we stand in November? And how long would we have to stand in those lines, to take a stand, or to draw a line?
Would we be able to draw the line on our ballot that elected a black man President?
Or are there lines that some of us just can’t cross?