On April 16, 1954, my father, a West Texas newspaper man, published a column about the racial attitudes of Cecil Rhodes. Rhodes was an English colonizer of South Africa, and originator of the Rhodes scholarships for American students.
My father, a Texan who grew up in a tribe of white farm workers, called Rhodes’ belief in white superiority “a racial complex.”
“Irony of the thing is,” he wrote, “Americans are such an amalgamation of races.”
Today I wonder how my father’s racial ideas developed. Long after his death, I asked his mother if she would consider voting for Jesse Jackson for president. I had never heard her utter a word about race, and was curious about her attitudes.
“I wouldn’t vote for a nigger,” she said, lowering her voice to a near whisper.
I recently had the opportunity to test my own racial attitudes on a Harvard web site. The researchers designed a word and picture association test that forces participants to quickly categorize positive and negative words with words and pictures of people of European and African ancestry. The test, its designers maintain, can measure a participant’s unconscious attitudes and beliefs.
Before the test, I thought I harbored a greater fear and distrust of white men than black men. I don’t know where I got this idea, but it turns out to be false. The speed of my responses betrayed my unconscious attitudes. It was much easier for me to put positive words with white faces, and negative words with faces of color.
On November 4, I voted for Barack Obama, a black man who is also white. I think my father, had he lived to see this day, would have done the same. Does our vote, the vote of a people who perceive themselves as white for a man we perceive as black mean that we — or he — can transcend our attitudes about race?
I think the answer is no, but I believe the answer is also yes. We carry our racial ideas with us. At some fundamental level, our bias remains. But in our behavior, at least, I believe we are able to overcome our tragic limitations. For some of us, at least, there is that perpetual hope, never fully realized perhaps, but approached, that we, too, shall overcome.
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