Race -- specifically the race of Senator Barack Obama -- has been an issue in this Presidential election cycle from the beginning. At first, we were unsure if Obama was "black enough" due to his mixed race family, having a white mother from Kansas and an African father from Kenya.
Then we heard "Barack the Magic Negro" and allegations of Michelle Obama calling someone "whitey." We heard that Obama's candidacy is a conscious act of affirmative action by millions of disconnected voters all over the country. We heard that Obama's pastor is a racist and that reverse racism is the real issue in this campaign.
All this underscores a true insecurity in this country about race and the relations between white and black communities. Imagine a black man running for president simply submitting his policy positions and promises, and being elected or rejected. Instead, all news and all statements seep through the filter of race before entering the mainstream.
The saddest parts of this situation are the instances of blatant racism that have emerged in our own communities that have gone unchallenged. Posters we have seen with our own eyes, racial slurs spoken about Obama we have heard with our own ears, false accusations that stand unchallenged by those that know the truth.
Last summer, I remember talking with a professor of mine who said, "Obama will never get elected because America is not ready for a black leader." He said the campaign of a black man would bring out the worst in the racist white supremacists and nationalists in this country. The reality of a black candidate would bring race to the fore and force us to confront it. I said I was ready for that. I said I want to see -- clearly -- who stands in that camp so we know who to approach with the light of truth.
My first personal contact with this blatant racism came yesterday upon hearing about a particular clothing designer on Manhattan's Lower East Side who sells t-shirts that read, "Obama is my Slave." The designer, Doron Braunshtein aka Apollo Braun, has also made shirts that read "Obama= Hitler" and "Who Killed Obama?"
If this is an attempt to shock and to gain publicity, it has served the designer's goal through numerous blog posts and news articles, many written in a tone of outrage. The "Obama is My Slave" t-shirt had gained publicity after it was reported that a woman wearing the t-shirt had been assaulted by a group of black teenage girls at Union Square.
After reading the news and blog accounts, I went down to this man's shop to confirm the story. I did not go as a journalist. I went as a concerned citizen who wanted some answers. I walked through the main entrance where an "Obama is my Slave" t-shirt was proudly displayed and asked him if the story was true. "Did a woman really get assaulted at Union Square for wearing his "Obama is My Slave" t-shirt"?
Yes, unfortunately, it was true, he said. The two women customers in the shop cooed with sympathy for the poor t-shirt designer. I asked him if he understood why someone would react that way. He said it does not matter because "this is America." I asked him "is there is no responsibility attached to the freedom of speech" and he gave me the same story. I then told him I think his shirt is disgusting and he should be ashamed of himself. That was my freedom of speech on display. The women looked shocked. That is when he booted me out of his store. He pointed to the camera and said that I need to watch myself, and that I should never show my face again in his store. I said that I was not there to do anything but register my protest, and told him there are plenty of other people who will do the same. I did not fight with him and, in fact, the conversation was rather civilized. Nevertheless, the fact is clear that his stated dedication to the first amendment does not include the inside of his shop.
The designer stands accused of the high crime of irony in designing this particular t-shirt and selling it for $69. Ah, the irony of a young, white child of privilege stating his independence from the racism of the past by wearing a shirt that boldly puts that inspirational black man in his place. Oh, how funny the wearer's progressive friends will find a shirt that is so backwards.
The true irony of the situation is that as I left his shop I saw a poster promoting hip-hop artist Nas's new album. The cover art shows Nas with back turned, showing the scars of a slave master's whip. Not twenty feet away from this cowardly shop is a clear sign to all those would-be purchasers of racist garb: We have not forgotten. Racial issues are not "over." They are not resolved. Those "scars" still remain in the minds of every black person who has ever been discriminated against, feared unjustly, or torn down to dirt with racial slurs. To act as if they do not exist is to not know the pain of injustice.
However, we have to go further. To allow blatant racism to continue unquestioned, under the guise of free speech, is unacceptable. To act with complacency is to act with complicity. Never let your freedom go to waste to tell racists -- or any other hate-based group -- that they are hurting our country. Stand up to these displays of gall and say no, not in my community. Race is still an issue and no level of ignorance or inaction on the part of the unaffected will improve the lives of the victims of hate.