Politics & Society
February Wed 10, 2010
I find that many of my non-American born friends do not fully understand the influence of racism in American life, and therefore in American politics. Born in Puerto Rico, I am an American citizen by birth, but I grew up in what was essentially a mostly Latin American, Catholic culture. When I visited Washington, DC as a teen age tourist, in the taxi on the way to where I was staying, a rooming house of a Puerto Rican lady who was a friend of my family, I saw signs saying “White Only” in other rooming houses and small hotels. In my ignorance, I asked the taxi driver (a black man) what the sign meant, and he said: “It means that I could never rent a room in those places.”
When I finally arrived at the house where I was staying, I was horrified to see that she too had the “Whites Only” sign. The taxi driver looked at me and, smiling, he said: “As you see, I could not rent a room at the place where you are staying.” Later, when I asked the Puerto Rican lady why she had put up that sign so foreign from our culture, she said: “I don’t understand much, but I don’t want any trouble from certain people in our neighborhood.”
A year later I was back in Washington as a college student. The signs were gone, and the Puerto Rican lady was back in Puerto Rico. One day I went into a barbershop for a much needed haircut, and I suddenly noticed that the barber and the other customers were black. Immediately I found myself thinking: “I wonder if this barber knows how to cut a white man’s hair.” Then I remembered that back in Puerto Rico my barber since childhood was a black man and I had never noticed it before! Now I had noticed this barber’s race. Something had happened to me without noticing it. American racism had entered my heart, even though in a mild form.
As I write this column, HBO-TV is showing the third part of a series of programs about what it means to be black in America today. Tonight the story deals with famous, successful, powerful, and popular African-Americans. Amazingly, all of them have said that being black had been an inseparable aspect of their personal stories. It may have made their success a difficult struggle, or it may have actually helped them succeed. The important point is that they have never been able to forget their race.
Together with many of their non-black friends and colleagues, they had cried at the election of President Barack Obama, wondering if a “post racial society” had suddenly begun to be possible in the United States. Indeed, following the election many commentators, observers, civil rights leaders, and ordinary Americans began to discuss this possibility. Today, however, it is clear that the famous dream of Martin Luther King Jr. is still a dream.
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