I am a typical white person, as Barack Obama might say, and did say, about his white grandmother. Like Rev. Jesse Jackson, I, too, have crossed the street to avoid a group of young black men who have a certain thug-in-the-hood look about them. Am I a racist? Only if Jesse Jackson is a racist. In fact, we are prudent.
On his old CNN TV show, Rev. Jackson and I once debated affirmative action. He favored it. I opposed it. I asked him, “Do you think you have this show because you are good or because you are black?” Jackson was speechless (a rarity) and he went to a commercial to keep from answering.
As I watch the exciting NCAA Basketball Tournament, I notice that most of the players are black. On some teams, all the players are black. Should an affirmative action program create slots so more whites, Hispanic and Asians can play, or should the best players be on these teams, without regard to race? The question should answer itself.
In his speech last week on race, Sen. Obama said blacks and whites have legitimate grievances and that whites who never owned a slave, or supported the slave trade, or knowingly discriminated against any African American have a right to be angry when affirmative action favors someone of a different race for a job for which they feel they are qualified.
The grievances of African Americans are starker. Their ancestors were kidnapped and brought to a country that was foreign to them and enslaved by mostly (but not exclusively) white people. Although the actions of a 19th-century Republican president freed them, 20th-century Democratic politicians discriminated against them, defiantly standing in schoolhouse doors, blocking their way to a better future.
This accusatory back and forth between races will continue beyond the current election unless all of us stop replaying past grievances. One can criticize some of what Obama said (and I have), but his appeal to lay the past to rest and move on to a better future is compelling and worth discussing.
One of the best tools I have seen that could help bridge the racial divide is a PBS documentary series called “African American Lives.” Its creator and host is Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. The program is a rarity in television. It informs without bias.
This four-part series features Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Quincy Jones, Mae Jemison, Dr. Ben Carson, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and Chris Tucker. Using DNA, the program traces their ancestry. Some have firm roots in African tribes, but others are surprising. For instance, Gates, who is African American, found that much of his DNA could be traced back to Ireland.
“African American Lives 2,” the sequel to the original program, traced the lineage of comedian Chris Rock, singer Tina Turner, Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman Jr., and magazine publisher Linda Johnson Rice, among others. Using courthouse documents, plantation ledgers and slave ship records, the subjects learn surprising things about their forebears. One of Rock’s ancestors was a South Carolina state senator. One of Turner’s ancestors founded the school she attended as a child, though she didn’t know about the genealogical link until the program revealed it in a touching moment.
I defy anyone but the most ardent racist to watch this series and not be transformed by what it reveals. I have spoken and exchanged e-mail with Dr. Gates and he says the main message in these programs is that slavery was more about economics than race.
More than slavery and discrimination, the loss of faith and family can be seen as the root of many of the problems in the black community. Even during the worst of times, black families held themselves together by holding onto God. Today, some have lost that faith and chaos threatens, chaos that Barack Obama — or anyone else — cannot repair.
The New York Times Magazine once did a cover story on prosperous black families in Prince Georges County, Md. What these families had in common, other than race, was that all were intact.
Unfortunately, those families are not typical. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2004, just 31.9 percent of black households had both spouses present, compared to 56.1 percent for white households. Hopefully, when intact black families become typical, many of the self-inflicted maladies in the black community will finally become atypical.