It’s funny that Ralph Nader, the perennial presidential-election spoiler, is claiming that Barack Obama is appealing to white guilt. I’ve seen no evidence of that. In fact, Obama has been trying his best to run a colorblind campaign.
The truth is, except for his skin color, Obama is your standard Northern liberal. If there’s only a dime’s worth of difference between Republicans and Democrats, there’s only a penny’s worth of difference between Obama and Teddy Kennedy on matters of policy. Obama, however, is certainly the smarter of the two.
I’ve never been a fan of Nader, and I don’t see why anyone is paying him the least bit of attention. He says what he thinks will get him ink and airtime. He’s a publicity hound. There’s something perverse about people who will run for office, knowing they can’t win, but are willing to skim a few votes off one of the major candidates. Nader definitely cost Al Gore the election in 2000, so we can justly blame him for eight years of George W. Bush. As far as I’m concerned, that consigns Nader to the dung heap.
In reality, I’m not sure that there is even such a thing as white guilt. Most Northerners seem to feel self-righteous on race matters, having for years enjoyed blaming the South. Most Southerners don’t feel any guilt. I don’t. I never owned any slaves, and I was glad to see the end of segregation. What’s to feel guilty about?
Whatever profits accrued to the South as a result of slavery were wiped out by the War of Northern Aggression and Reconstruction. The South, both blacks and whites, was plunged into poverty, from which it didn’t begin to recover until World War II. While scientists were working on the atomic bomb in the 1940s in Chicago, Georgia tenant farmers, many of them, were picking cotton by hand and carrying it to the gin in mule-drawn wagons.
Outhouses, wells and oil lamps were familiar objects in my childhood. I went barefoot all summer, except for Sundays, and the only free lunches came from friends and relatives during visits. Believe it or not, people managed to survive without welfare, Medicaid or Medicare. I chopped kindling with an axe and carried in many a bucket of good old Pennsylvania anthracite coal for the fireplaces and stoves. My treasured possessions were a pocketknife, a secondhand .22 rifle and marbles.
No one I can recall considered himself poor or felt any guilt. If Obama receives any votes because of white guilt, it will be in the North or Midwest. Perhaps that is appropriate, since it was people from those regions who screwed the former slaves out of the promised 40 acres and a mule and cut a deal with the Democrats that made segregation possible.
And if there was segregation by law in the South, there was segregation by practice in the North. I grew up in a sea of black faces and played every day with black kids. There were no black ghettos in most of the South; black people lived a block from my house.
That said, was it tough being black in the segregated South? You bet. In some places, a wrong word or even a look could get you beaten or killed. Job opportunities were as scarce as voter registration. Apartheid was about the same in the South as in South Africa, although white Southerners — some of them, anyway — were naturally more polite than the Afrikaners. Schools were separate and unequal. The N-word and "boy" were constant affronts to men’s dignity. Obama and people in his age group are lucky in the year of their birth.
But we Americans are not very good at feeling guilty. If you don’t believe me, ask the Cheyenne, the Cherokee or the Sioux.
Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.