Our racial prejudice
in the Obama age
Associate since 1991
Comments directly to
February 16, 2008
LONDON - Just how emancipated are we white westerners? What is the acid test? - Electing a black man as president of the U.S., or smiling weakly at the doctor who we have just been told is going to perform a complex surgical manoeuvre on our heart and who turns out to be a big hulking black man?
I suspect many of us may be ready for the first, but not so sure about the second. It doesn’t seem that long ago that flying to India I walked up to the cockpit to see if it really was brown men flying that great big 747. These days I fly all over Africa with all black crews and only worry when I’m in Nigeria, not because the pilots are black but because the airline industry imposed no safety standards until recently.
Nevertheless, the fact that Barack Obama is now the frontrunner to be the next president of the U.S. is a remarkable historical event, not just for him, not just for America, but for us, the white man, who so long dominated the world and considered the black, yellow and brown people as “coons”, “niggers” and “boys”. It wasn’t that long ago - maybe 30 years - that I was taken out to lunch by the op-ed editor of the New York Times and she, well aware of my close association with Martin Luther King’s movement from the time when I had worked in the slums of Chicago as a volunteer, asked me if I thought when you really got to know “them” if they were really the same as “us”.
It was working in Dr King’s movement that I learnt what a combustible business race was - not just the reaction of white Chicagoans when challenged, but the tensions within the movement itself. The white students who came to help were intent on living some kind of idyllic multiracial life. But in the end their behaviour was insulting, even overbearing. As Dr Alvin Pouissant, the psychiatrist who was in charge of all the medical work in the civil rights movement, observed, “They were bent on showing how ‘free’ they were around black people, and would indulge in all manner of unconventional behaviour in the Negro community which the black workers felt they would never dare exhibit back home with their own kind.” As Stokely Carmichael pungently put it later, “they were trying to come alive through the black community.”
Many of the white student volunteers, the girls in particular, seemed to believe they could assuage the guilt of centuries by making themselves ‘easily available’ to black men. The white girls had what Poussaint graphically called a “White Africa Queen complex”, openly flaunting their affairs. Inevitably this brought out bitter resentment from the black girls. Poussaint wrote: “So much energy was expended by both black males and females in discussing the problems created by white girls in particular that on many days little project work was accomplished. In addition it became clear that local black people were becoming extremely frightened by inter-racial liaisons and thus frequently refused to cooperate with the project work.”
In May 1966, Stokely Carmichael was elected chairman of the student wing of the civil rights movement. It was his call for “Black Power” that split the civil rights movement down the middle. Yes, the young wanted a more confrontational policy than Dr King, but a good part of the resentment that blew up inside them had been fed by their own humiliating experiences inside the movement.
Ironically in the Obama campaign it is white women voters that are his main threat. They vote in much larger numbers for Hillary Clinton. Part of this phenomenon reminds me of my first visit to South Africa in 1961 when I worked for a while in the ministry of agriculture. The men, although illiberal by my lights, would think nothing about having a social chat with one of their black colleagues, even a beer. But their wives, if they heard about it, were enraged. “How could you…..?”
Maybe this had something to do with the role of white middle class women in those days. They were housewives and it is a human trait that many of us need someone below us to intimidate in order to feel secure. The men had their wives and their work, but the wives only their servants. But it also has something to do with a white woman’s suspicion that black men would like to take sexual advantage of her - a prejudice that has been instilled into women over centuries and is only now evaporating as personal contact is made at work and socially.
We whites are not quite there yet. But who would have dared say only a generation ago that a presidential candidate in our lifetime would be judged “not by the colour of his skin, but by the content of his character”? Dr King’s dream has come true.
Copyright © 2008 Jonathan
Jonathan Power can be
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of Humanity” poses eleven questions for our future progress, ranging
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hurdles yet to be overcome. Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, London, 2007.
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