One thing volunteering for the Obama campaign in southern Virginia reiterated to me is that racism is alive and well in this country and there's something that needs to be done about it.
We were in the rural town of Lawrenceville, VA--about thirty minutes north of North Carolina, on a rainy election day. Lawrenceville and the surrounding area is ripe with cotton fields and these great big beautiful towering trees with plaid-colored leaves along the sides of its roads and highway.
Behind the town's courthouse with its statue commemorating those who fought and died for the Confederacy, a line of 200 people, mostly African American, waited for over an hour to vote. The line continued like this for most of the day.
We walked up and down the line, careful to stay outside of the 40-feet from the polling station as required by law, and handed out Democratic sample ballots. We encouraged people to vote not only for Barack Obama but to make his job easier as President by electing Democrats down the ballot, including first-time candidate Tom Perriello who was up against a popular six-term Republican, Virgil Goode, for U.S. House. (One person told us we were crazy to campaign for Perriello, that he didn't stand a chance, but he won by 745 votes).
What struck me from this experience is that most of the time the white people in line wanted nothing to do with our Democratic sample ballots. One grizzly old man, standing in a group of grizzly old men, remarked, "Why you handing those out! Most these people can't read!" Having anticipated his aggression, I quickly shouted him down with: "Vote for change! Barack Obama for President!!!!! Get your sample ballots!"
We also encountered a group of young teenage girls wearing McCain stickers, handing out Republican sample ballots within 40 feet of the polling station. One even went up and down the line filming voters up close with a small video camera. When my sister confronted them and politely asked them to stop, they sniffed that they were performing community service for their school.
An African American voter we talked to recognized one of the girls as her neighbor and said she attends the all white school in town for grades K-12, the Brunswick Academy, which was founded in 1964--the same year segregation became illegal. It's clear that in Lawrenceville and other parts of our country, namely the south, people are still living in 1963.
Whether you witness a taxicab in NYC not stop for a black person, which I've seen twice in the last two years, or hear an a--hole spout off something offensive, racism shocks. It's something that stays with you, and luckily I haven't seen a lot of it. But what we witnessed down there, the stories we heard about the time warp these people live in, it's enough to make you want to keep the campaign machines going for the cause of eradicating racism once and for all. Liberal pipe dream? Yes, but we just had one of those come true on Tuesday.
And the thing that amazes me looking back, is how comfortable and open and warm the black people there were to us. We interacted like old friends. An older woman who sings gospel in her church and I did a very terrible rendition of Aladdin's "A Whole New World" to entertain people waiting in the long line. (It was the fault of my voice, not hers!) But the fact that most white people down there are so rude and nasty to them, and they still opened up right off the bat to us is beautiful.
A local African American couple--business owners--who I won't name even though they said it was okay to quote them in this story, said that they're used to the town's segregation, that after ten years of living in Lawrenceville, a town with black and white swimming pools, they tune it out.
"We don't focus on it. It's a lack of understanding. You kind of tune it out, you have to," said the man, a tech-specialist who used to live in northern Virginia but is originally from Lawrenceville.
His wife, who's from up north, said she's now used to white people turning their heads when she passes them on the street or in the supermarket aisle. "It's so bad, you don't know who to speak to."
Their neighbor--one of the young McCain supporters that was filming the voters waiting in line, doesn't speak to them, neither does her family. It's no wonder; she attends a school built to give whites a "safe haven" from de-segregation. If you flip through the Brunswick Academy's web site you'll see just how white washed it is.
The way to help the south beat racism is to enact better and improved anti-bias programs in schools, which are proven to work in reducing prejudice. As for their parents and the community as a whole, there should be more multicultural community events to bring people together.
Even in towns like Lawrenceville, where you're either black or you're white with not a lot of other races or cultures in between, they can still get down with a community event celebrating a totally different culture to bring in the rest of the world, to give them an excuse to come together and have fun. If I'm sounding a little too It's A Small World, that's because it is, especially today and its only getting smaller.
Hell, even as white college kids bussed down into the south to register black voters during the Civil Rights movement, we New Yorkers, Austiners, San Franciscaners can get our asses down to rural towns throughout the south and put on some great big community events in conjunction with local groups. This is in a sense building on Howard Dean's brilliant 50 state strategy but culture-fying it.
We can't abandon the Red States we reached out to in this election just because we won, the elections over. Democratic party leaders, progressive cultural leaders, artists, musicians, community organizers from all over the country should pay pilgrimage to hard fought districts in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia. We need to keep the connections that paved the way for victory. We can't let them dry up. We need to continue to make the Red States especially in the south a priority moving forward to bring about lasting change. By continuing to strengthen these connections with the help of organizations and leaders going down there to attend and put on events, we're investing in future political victories and building community to combat racism and prejudice.
It took an economic crisis to help ensure the election of the first African American president. Let's hope that with the next African American, woman, Hispanic, this that or the other candidate, it doesn't take an act of God or a catastrophe by man to get this person elected.
If anyone knows of any groups already doing this or planning to, please let me know in the comments section, because I'm there, but this time, I'm not singing. Ok, I will!