While off for the holidays, I took my 90-year-old, former Marine, Republican dad to his inner-city barbershop. Dad goes to the same barbershop that my brothers and I went to when we were growing up. Different people now own the shop, and I hadn’t set foot in there in probably 35 years. Is it still, I asked Dad, the same “afro-centric,” white-man-done-me-wrong, trash-talking joint? “Yes,” sighed my father, who taught my brothers and me to overcome racism through hard work and personal responsibility.
When we get there, it’s packed. Two barbers, cutting hair, with about six or seven people waiting. But the walls no longer sport posters of an angry, finger-pointing Malcolm X, or Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam, or Marcus Garvey, who urged blacks to leave racist America and return to Africa. I remember them staring down at me as my barber ranted about how “the white man” oppresses us. But on this day, as my dad and I walk in, one of the barbers recognizes me.
Barber: Mr. Larry Elder, how you doin’?
Larry: This is my dad. (My taciturn dad never told him that the notorious Sage from South Central was his son.) How many ahead of him?
The barber offered to take my dad right away, cutting in front of others, but dad and I quickly refused. As we waited, one of the barbers and I began talking about what the barber called the “problem of racism.” I argued that racism no longer posed a significant obstacle to black progress. What other country could produce a Colin Powell, a Condi Rice, an Oprah Winfrey, a Tiger Woods, a Barack Obama and a Snoop Dogg?
Larry: What about my dad? How did he manage? How do you compare what it’s like now to what it was like then? He grew up in the Jim Crow South during the Depression, when black adult unemployment was 50 percent. He dropped out of school at age 13, after his mother threw him out of the house in favor of her then-boyfriend. Hard jobs followed, and he served in World War II. When he came out, he worked two full-time jobs as a janitor, cooked for a family on the weekends and went to night school to get his high school G.E.D. He saved his money and somehow managed to start a restaurant when he was in his 40s, which he ran until he was in his 80s. If racism didn’t stop him then, how can racism stop you today? And he votes Republican!
Most of the customers, and the barbers, start laughing. But another customer could take it no longer.
Customer: But you have to admit, Elder, that the playing field is not level. White people have more money and more property than we do.
Larry: (Turning to him.) Let’s say I’m white and I got money. (Laughter.) Either I worked for it or my dad worked for it, or my grandfather worked for it and I inherited it. Still, it’s my money. And guess what — I’m not giving it to you! I’m sorry about Rodney King. I’m sorry about Emmett Till. I’m sorry about Rosa Parks. I’m not giving you my money. I’m sorry they turned water hoses and dogs on Martin Luther King. I’m sorry about Rosewood. I’m sorry about the Tuskegee Experiment. I’m not giving you my money. I’m sorry about slavery. I’m sorry about Jim Crow. But I never owned a slave, and I don’t use the ‘N’ word. I am not giving you my money.
The barbers laughed.
Larry: Now, what are you gonna do about it? Take it from me? Hah! I believe in the 2nd Amendment, and I own a gun. (More laughter.) Try and come and get it. (More laughter.) Try and take it from me through politics, and I’m gonna vote Republican to keep my taxes down. (More laughter.) Now I ask you again, what do you intend to do about it? Let me offer a suggestion — invest in yourself. Get an education, learn a trade or a skill, get a job, and get your own stuff. So you can BMW — bitch, moan and whine — all you want. But I am not giving you my money.
By now, most of the men in the barbershop, including the barbers, laughed.
Barber: The man makes sense.
Larry: When can we blacks get to the point where you and I can have a disagreement — about racism, affirmative action, the War in Iraq, whatever — without someone who thinks like me being a sell-out or an Uncle Tom? Is that at all possible? Am I asking too much?
Barber: (Smiling.) No, man, that’s not asking too much.
While driving home, my dad said, “That was something, Larry.”
“No, Dad,” I said, “you are something. Besides, I said nothing you hadn’t heard before — or said.”