Racism may be waning, but are we there yet?

September 16, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS | DAN RODRICKS,dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

I think it's fair to say that every white American knows another white American who is a bigot. The bigotry comes out in different ways - in conversation about politics, sports, crime, music, life in general. The bigot you know probably enjoys sharing a crude joke now and then, and these days you might receive an offensive e-mail from him, as I did last week.

If you've been around this person enough over the years, you pretty much know what to expect. You don't expect this person to change. You don't expect this person to say anything nice about, much less vote for, Barack Obama. (He or she probably didn't have many pleasant words about Hillary Clinton, either.)

I would also say this: Every white American of a certain age - say 40 to 60 - knows fewer bigots today than he or she did 20 years ago because, for one thing, a lot of them have died off. We have become a more tolerant society by generational attrition. But there's more to it than that. We're far from colorblind, but if Obama's presidential nomination signals anything, it's at least the dawn of a new era in this changing nation.

Baby boomers grew up immersed in racial bigotry - most of us were born when Jim Crow laws were still on the books - but our kids are growing up in what the pollster John Zogby calls a "beige America."

Our kids have not had the instruction in racial hatred a lot of their parents and grandparents had. More than ever before, Gen X and Gen Y are the offspring of mixed-race and ethnically mixed couples.

More of them have been exposed to greater ethnic and racial diversity in their schools, in their musical choices and cultural interests, at work, and through the global reach of the Internet. They've made Will Smith the top-rated, highest-paid movie star and Tiger Woods one of the most popular sports figures of their time.

In his first book, The Way We'll Be, Zogby predicts that Americans who are now between 18 and 29 will be the first colorblind generation. He calls them the "first globals," young Americans who are acquiring an "expansive world view" as they mature. They are better educated and more connected to the world than previous generations. They have a greater appreciation of the need for international cooperation, mainly because of environmental and human rights issues.

The "first globals" are consumers, to be sure, but they are less likely to define the American dream in terms of materialism. They don't expect to live as well as their parents or grandparents did, but they consider personal fulfillment a top priority. Zogby believes the "first globals" are leading America to "a new age of inclusion and authenticity."

This sounds like wishful thinking, but it's based on Zogby Interactive's comprehensive polling system. Others have noticed this transformation.

So it isn't just time and death that is reducing the number of bigots and making America a more accepting society. There has been profound cultural change in the 40 years since the civil rights movement and the statutory end of "separate but equal." We're making progress. Obama is the latest sign of it.

But are we there yet?

"What else explains why this is even a close race?" a friend, who is black, said over lunch the other day. "After eight years of Bush, with the war, with the gas prices, with the economy going the way it is, what else would explain why John McCain is even close to Barack Obama in the polls?"

I had just described for him an e-mail I received - forwarded several times and ultimately from someone I know - that is one of the most blatantly racist I've seen this year, playing on bigoted stereotypes about the African-American work ethic. White bigots would find it funny. Everyone else would be offended by it. After seeing this garbage - and others that have come through the Internet - you can appreciate why a middle-age black man sitting in a restaurant in Baltimore would view the 2008 presidential election as a measure of the degree of racism in America.

But it's also a measure of our racial progress, though, for most of this extraordinary campaign year, that has not been the way Obama's candidacy was framed. Before the Rev. Jeremiah Wright episode, when Obama was forced to take on race with that phenomenal speech in Philadelphia, the primary-season debates had been all about the issues with which Americans should be most concerned - the cost of health care, energy policy, the war in Iraq - and not race. The war, the economy and health care are the things that should be on the minds of all Americans, no matter what their race or party affiliation, as the clock ticks toward November. Everything else is a sideshow.

"I think there's a silent longing for an American catharsis on race," my friend added. "Racial bigotry has been a long and strong and sad part of our nation's history. Many Americans want our country to grow up."

As for the bigots, my friend and I agreed: There isn't much you can do about them. The older ones, in particular, are not going to change. If the bigot you know forwards you a racist e-mail, you should respond by telling him or her that it's sick and stupid and should stop. Then hit the delete key. Do not forward these e-mails, even to friends as evidence of the evil lurking in our midst. Forwarding them just spreads the poison, and that's the last thing a country facing huge problems needs right now.

Dan Rodricks can be heard on "Midday" on Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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