A few weeks ago I was reading a magazine between sets at the gym. There happened to be a picture of President Obama on the page and an acquaintance came over and asked me what I thought of the President. I replied that I hadn’t voted for the guy. As soon as I said that a young black man walked by me and muttered under his breath “That’s because you’re prejudiced.”
My reaction wasn’t guilt or shame but a little anger and some sadness that someone would assume that just because I am a person of pallor that my disagreements with a person of color would be based on anything but philosophical differences. I would judge the young man who made this unfortunate comment to be in his early 20’s. The blatant discrimination of the early 20th century and the racial tensions of the 60’s and 70’s are things with which he has no direct experience. He has grown up in a world where blacks are routinely placed at the highest levels of American society and few people think it unusual or even remarkable to deal with a black CEO or politician or professional. Black athletes and artists performing at the highest levels are so commonplace as to be almost expected.
This young man has grown up at a time when the opportunities for non-whites are the greatest in history, and a fair case can be made that in some instances, notably in college admissions and public service, it is a significant advantage to be non-white. So where does he get the idea that because I didn’t vote for the black man it must be because of some deep-seated racial animosity?
I have to think that it starts with the American obsession with race. No sane person will deny that the during the country’s first 200 years (I don’t count the period before 1776; we weren’t an independent country) the English-descended majority treated other folks pretty horribly. From the Natives to the Africans forcibly imported for labor to the Chinese laborers who were slaves in everything but name, if you weren’t lily white then you weren’t right. Hell, even white immigrants from other parts of Europe were treated badly.
So it would seem that the people in power had much to atone for, but if you look at where American society is today compared to 50 years ago, it is apparent that we have made more progress than any other society in making the wealth of our society accessible to anyone with the brains and desire to take advantage of the opportunity. I challenge a black person to go anywhere in the world and enjoy the same opportunities that they have here. Even France, the haven for many black intellectuals and artists in the 1920’s and 30′ s, does not have a single black Member of Parliament and out of the 785 members of the European Parliament there is exactly one black Member and only nine non-white Members total. This compares with 39 black Representatives and 1 black Senator serving in the U.S. Congress today.
It seems to me that there are a lot of people in what has been called the ‘race industry’ that would rather look to the past with blinders on than look to the future with eyes wide open. Because many of them ‘made their bones’ during the social upheaval of the 60’s and 70’s they want to stay focused on the injustices of that time. In a way, this is only human nature, to want to live in the perceived glories of the past rather than face an uncertain future, or worse, step aside and let a new generation lead. But this blindness is poisoning our younger generations.
There is an entire generation that came of age in the 70′ and 80’s who were taught on the one side to take every nuance of action and language as a slight and on the other side to feel nothing but guilt and shame about their country’s history. Thus we have the professional victim class driven by a sense of entitlement and the professional busy-body class driven by a sense of guilt. Fortunately, with every generation the pain of the past recedes but there are many who seem incapable of letting the wounds heal, as if picking at the scab will speed the process.
I am sure that the young man who made that comment to me is proud of Barack Obama’s achievement. I only wish that he was proud of his country for coming so far in such a short time, and not just because the President happened to look like him.