I don’t think I’m obsessed with race, but those I trust with my innermost thoughts say I am. Maybe so. But just a little — in a positive, life-affirming way. I’m in love with the infinite configurations of cultural and ethnic identity, and as I move through life, my notion of where I belong in the continuum of otherness has become far more malleable. I see commonality more than I see divergence among those funky party people who inhabit Los Angeles. These people dig ethnic foods and polyglot music, and have interesting offspring … or, as my mother stated years and years ago, mixed babies are the cutest.
Plus, well, when I’m the only person of color at a party or art show, I hardly notice. Often when I do, it’s because I see another person of color and think they couldn’t be keeping it nearly as real as I do. It’s really more of a game, because I’m not going to get clocked by an irate anti-busing nut, or a segregationist shouting, “States’ rights forever!” Usually someone offers me another mojito and I’m happy as a clam.
I don’t think of race as a burden to be endured or tolerated. My view is that most of the heavy lifting was done by my parents’ generation; my children and I enjoy the fruits of the labor by those far braver than I. My daughters’ mother just sent me an e-mail from Jack and Jill, an African-American mothers’ organization, detailing an upcoming teenagers’ conference theme: “Everybody wants to be black, but nobody wants to be black,” which is a much better problem to contend with than everybody wants to get rid of blacks.
So I live a good life in my cocoon of genteel Pasadena, writing at the Starbucks where Caltech students hang out. I thrive on the vibe of life in Greater Los Angeles and the tolerance and generosity that are necessary for true cultural diversity. My concerns are more class- than race-based, the same concerns Americans of every stripe have — our children, our health, our economic prospects. My heart tells me we can make this multicultural society work as I order another drip roast from the barista. But then my head reminds me of the presidential campaign and I hear the echoes of “drill, baby, drill.”
What kills my buzz is a recent Associated Press–Yahoo News poll, conducted with Stanford University, which suggests that up to a third of Democrats may not vote for Barack Obama because of his race. This is stunning because Barack has more in common with the average American — including all those average Joe the plumbers — than John McCain, who was born to money, married money and will die with money. Could it really be that Barack, this brilliant, self-made guy, is seen as an arrogant and an uppity black who is too, too elite?
The poll’s good news — I desperately searched for some — is that some whites even admire black people, and many more black people admire whites. Of course, you can argue over the poll’s methodology, but it certainly is depressing. About the only silver lining is that the negative feelings toward blacks seem to be a condition mostly afflicting those older than 40. The implication is that if we can wait long enough for middle-aged bigots to drown in a pool of their toxic bitterness, we’ll be fine — if we survive another Republican administration.
While this survey is a bitter pill to swallow, the anecdotal stories are worse. Over these past few months I’ve heard and heard about views that are as bad as you imagine they could be when whites who don’t like blacks speak their minds.
And so I have to reconcile myself to this depressing-ass poll, which speaks to the poison of race. It’s one thing to not vote for Obama if you simply think he’s inexperienced or too far left, but it’s really unsettling to think that the country’s future is in the hands of racists in my own party, who would rather have a broken economy and endless wars than a half-black president.
But then, I think, I must not succumb to racial paranoia and stew in defeatism. I will ignore the poll and put my trust in the better angels of human nature. And maybe the poll is flawed, maybe we Americans are more broad-minded on issues of race than I give us credit for. Wouldn’t it be nice to think so? We’ll find out on November 4.