My father’s love affair with African Americans began in 1932, somewhere between his debarcation at Ellis Island and his arrival in Washington DC. For the 17-year-old Irish farm boy, black people were not only strikingly handsome , but the embodiment of all the world he’d yet to see. For reasons he’d later explain, he also felt an immediate kinship.
“From my first day in America, I heard people insult the character of Negroes,” he told me. “And wasn’t it the same pack of lies the British always said about the Irish.”
I grew up trusting my father’s judgment on most things. But it was impossible to share his conviction that racial equality was just around the corner. That all it would take was for everyone to get to the same starting line at the same time.
Where exactly was that line and how far the race? In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, the only place I saw true integration was in my parents’ house. My father had a habit of bringing black people home for dinner. He’d later work to get black students into private high schools and colleges, sometimes paying the tuition himself.
I did my best to live up to his example. I marched against racism, joined hands and sang, attended a black college in Alabama for a semester in 1968. At the time of my father’s death in 1979, the times were definitely changing, but at a glacial pace.
Three months ago, standing before a class of seventh graders, I had a sudden and startling return of faith. Looking to fill the last few minutes of English class, I asked my students a question.
“How much of a factor will race be in Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency?”
The students, African American and Hispanic young men, smelled a trick question.
“None,” said Jordan. “Why would it?”
“Obama’s problem is he’s too smart,” said Elijah. “People might think he’s trying to get over on them.”
“And too nice,” added Joshua. “He’s got to get mad sometimes.”
You could argue that these students are naïve about racism. At 12 and 13, they’ve yet to apply for a job. And since most live in predominantly black, low income neighborhoods, there is little opportunity for racial clashes. But the more I questioned them, the more apparent it became that from their perch, the world looks like a cherry flavored meritocracy.
Their favorite athletes, actors and singers have all reached the top on merit alone. If I were to suggest that LeBron James’ race might be an obstacle to winning an NBA championship, or Denzel Washington’s skin color a box office hurdle, they’d laugh me out of the classroom.
Last night, as I watched America elect Barrack Obama, I cried for my father and my students. If we have not yet reached the same starting line, I believe we are not far from it.