Reflections on race
Four writers share experiences that shaped their views.
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To my surprise, though, the student sought me out afterward. She came from a conservative family, she explained, the kind of people who have never left their small hometown. But here she was in college, babysitting for an immigrant family and even thinking of traveling abroad. In particular, she wanted me to know that her father was very conservative and these ideas I had presented were new for her.Skip to next paragraph
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I realized then that she wasn't just asking questions about immigration. She was questioning all she had grown up hearing about race. She was even beginning to doubt the most powerful figure in her life: her father.
And I felt hopeful.
It didn't mark the end of racial profiling, or racial disparities in healthcare, but it felt powerful to me that this young white woman was asking the hard questions. It reminded me that I, too, had left my conservative Latino father's house to see the world for myself and pose a number of my own questions.
I get so caught up in the fantasy that social change happens in one single swoop (the election of a black president, my winning a debate), but real understanding is more likely to come from being honest about where we are, entertaining new questions, and, of course, listening.
Daisy Hernández is editor of ColorLines, a newsmagazine on race and politics.
One of the gifts my parents, the American-born offspring of Eastern European Jews, gave me as I was growing up in Brookline, Mass., was an unwavering belief in racial equality. They backed up their words with action, inviting a black mechanic at a nearby gas station to dinner, and making it clear that any black acquaintances would be welcome.
My brother got to know a prominent black high school athlete who dined at our house, and when I started playing tournament tennis, two black tennis players were welcomed by my parents.
My commitment to equality was strengthened by several instances of anti-Semitism experienced by my family and me. We were told that we were not welcome at some resort hotels. When I was 15, I was ranked 18th in the nation for boy tennis players 15 and under. But, being Jewish, I was unable to join the Longwood Cricket Club, which had indoor courts – very uncommon in the 1940s – so my tennis season ended in October, not to resume until April.
My experience directing USAID missions in Latin America opened my eyes to the key role that cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes play in explaining why some countries and ethnic groups do better than others in the pursuit of human progress. My belief in racial equality was strengthened when I became aware that the people of backward Haiti and progressive Barbados both had their roots in the Dahomey region of West Africa. Culture matters. The history of Haiti, independent in 1804 in the wake of a slave uprising against the French colonists, is one of corrupt, incompetent leadership; illiteracy; and poverty. Barbados, which gained its independence from the British in 1966, is today a prosperous democracy of "Afro-Saxons."
While in Latin America, I encountered "dependency theory," which explains Latin America's backwardness as a consequence of US imperialism. The late MIT political scientist Lucian Pye describes the theory as "demeaning and despairing." There are some obvious parallels between "dependency theory" and the "victim" psychology that appear to dominate the thinking of many successful African-Americans, including Henry Louis Gates and Spike Lee.