Are Americans Racist?

The simple answer is: no they are not – not in the conventional sense, anyway. White Americans can take justifiable pride in how far and how rapidly they have allowed their black fellow citizens (I apologize for not using the politically correct nomenclature “African-American”, but “black” is much shorter) to progress during the past four decades. To get a palpable sense of this, just watch any Hollywood movie made in the 1930s and 1940s. The only roles written for blacks were those where they were portrayed as mentally-challenged, wide eyed zombies who referred to all white men as “massah”: or faithful family retainers.

Yes, traces of racism do persist – and I am not referring to obvious examples, like the Klu Klux Klan and self-proclaimed White Supremists. With the notable exceptions of show business and sports, black Americans still have to strive much harder than whites to attain the same level of seniority in an organization, say. It would not be stretching the truth too far to say that s sizeable number of White Americans do not think it is ‘normal’ for a black person to be successful. The black American author, Uzodinma Iweala says he is reminded of this every time he finishes a reading when, without fail, a white person overzealously praises his speaking ability. On one occasion, a 15-year old high school student was amazed to learn that the author had actually attended college.

The old perceptions, too, are still very much in evidence – and I candidly admit that I am equally guilty, even though I am not white. Many white persons, when they encounter young black men approaching them on the street – especially if it is lonely and as night – almost instinctively put their guard up and look apprehensive. And look at how commentators invariably refer to Barack Obama as the first ‘black’ man to run for President. The sobriquet “white” is never applied to the other candidates.

Barack Obama has, in fact, turned the old equations on their heads. Many Americans are still coming to grips with the idea of a black man – who went to Harvard, no less – achieving such exalted national prominence. They tend to over-compensate – and profess color blindness – by stating publicly that they always think of Obama, not as a black man, but as a man: just as they do not think of Oprah as a black woman but, well, just Oprah. Also, except for the committed zealots, every effort is made to ignore Obama’s Muslim middle name, Hussein. This seems a bit hypocritical, considering that any American with even a ‘Muslim-sounding’ name immediately brings up a red flag with potential employers and airport security personnel.

The irony here is that Obama is only half black; his mother, Anne Dunham, was white. In a sense, that makes him biracial. However, he is invariably thought of as a ‘black’ man. White folk haven’t latched on to his coattails by claiming him as one of their own.