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Tom Finneran: Black on White

Friday, October 12, 2012


Tom Finneran, GoLocalWorcester MINDSETTER™

Almost fifty years after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and four full years after America chose its first black President, we now seem to be stuck in a ditch, despite what had appeared to me to be an impressive, steady, and accelerating march toward a color-blind society.  And, notwithstanding the abundant hope that Barack Obama’s election would usher in a post-racial age for America, it clearly has not yet happened.

There are troubling signs all around us.

An applicant for admission to the University of Texas has a case pending at the United States Supreme Court which claims that the university’s affirmative action policy on admissions is unconstitutional. Claiming superior credentials to certain minority student applicants, the plaintiff states that she has suffered from discrimination based upon race. No matter which way the Court decides, and this will probably be a very closely divided opinion, we know that the result will generate an uproar and further racial division.

Four years ago, as Barack Obama put together a stunningly impressive campaign for President, many black Americans seemed to believe that many white Americans, when polled, would indicate their support for the Democratic candidate in order to avoid the accusation of racism, but that they secretly harbored a racist intention to never vote for the black candidate. Look back at the polls and the accompanying narratives as it became more and more apparent that Obama was the real deal and that he might very likely win the race for President----one of the narratives was the calculation of that perceived racism—i.e.—would it cost Obama three percent of the vote? Five percent? Eight percent?

And who could blame black Americans for being suspicious? There was ample, overwhelming , and heartbreaking history on their side.

Many white Americans, on the other hand, were incredulous that their fellow citizens, black Americans, had an expectation of racist reaction to Obama’s candidacy. Historically unimaginable numbers of white Americans were not only enthusiastically committed to Obama’s candidacy, but they felt as if they had been open to just such a campaign for many years.

So two sets of eyes, one of black America and one of white America, surveyed the national scene and seemed to see two very different things. Black Americans feared, and expected, the worst—a rejection of a qualified black man based upon nothing more than the color of his skin. They had seen such a result a million times over and they expected more of the same.

White Americans said “Huh—are you kidding me? We’re so far beyond skin color in our lives and our judgements………just watch and see”.  In fact, I believe that many white Americans had long been ready, willing, comfortable, and excited about the idea of electing a black President as proof positive of their own color-blindness and personal virtue, and as a way of purging the nation’s ugly past. Notwithstanding the candidacies of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, neither one of them being serious, disciplined, and capable candidates, white America seemed to have been waiting for a Barack Obama. And the phrase “hope and change” captured that impatient desire in a unique way.

Another phrase--- “twice as good”--- has historic roots and tragic meaning to many black families. The belief remains that unless they were twice as good as any white candidate for the job, they would never be given a fair chance. True too it seems to me—whether it was in school, in the professions and trades, or on the playing fields of America. That history is very hard to erase from a family’s DNA---that their mothers and fathers were laughed at and mocked, sometimes in brutal, obnoxious, and repulsive ways, robbing them of their dignity and denying them an opportunity to provide for their families.

Look. I’m white and I’m Irish. The Irish know a thing or two about discrimination. And the Irish are the world’s best at holding a grudge. If, many decades after the last vestiges of discrimination were visited upon the Irish, and  many decades after an Irish ascendancy into every field and profession, we still hold on to bitter memories and sharp lessons, no one should be terribly surprised that black America remains wary and suspicious of white America. They have cause to believe and expect the worst.

I have no idea of how to bridge the racial gap. Each “helpful” or “remedial”action begets an “unfair”reaction. And affirmative action is becoming more and more of an explosive battleground. My black neighbors and I want the same thing—i.e.—our sons and daughters gaining admission to Harvard, and of course none of us want to see our children discriminated against because of their race…

Perhaps those final steps into “post-racial America” will occur in my children’s lifetime. For that, let us  pray.


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