Tuesday, May 5, 2009

A Wave From The White House

My daughter came back from a school trip to Washington DC very excited about the whole trip. Along with the Lincoln Memorial, the Smithsonian and other landmarks, they went to the White House
Someone had waved to her group from a window. she didn't think it was President Obama because he would probably have been too busy to take time out to wave. She thought it might have been one of the Obama children, because the person who waved was definitely not white.

She concluded that it might well have been one of the Obama children.

The conversation reminded me of when I was a child. John Kennedy was the first Roman Catholic President. I had a lot of Boston Irish in my class. They felt great pride in an Irish American making it to the White House. Some of the elderly Irish Americans used to tell us about the discrimination against them in Boston, with some jobs closed to them and a lot of grass roots anti Irish and anti Catholic bigotry.

I told my daughter, "When I was your age, if you saw a Black person waving from the White House, you knew they were not from the first family. I don't know if you appreciate what a big step it is for the country that the First Family is African American. In Kennedy's time, some African Americans could not even vote, let alone hope to be President."

Even though I disagree with President Obama on far more than I agree with him, I still welcome the fact that race is no bar to sitting in the Oval Office. When I remember the vicarious pride of the children and grandchildren of Irish immigrants when one of their own made it to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, I am happy for my African American neighbours that their children can experience similar feelings. It is important to have a visible sign that societal prejudice will not stand in the way of a child's dreams.

My parents had their belated (by one year) honeymoon in 1949. They drove through the southern states on their way to Florida. My father was shaken by the signs at road stops for segregated restaurants and water fountains. When he had left Germany 13 years earlier, the level of anti Jewish discrimination in Germany was not yet at its most intense. But there were signs up on some stores barring Jews from entering. He and my aunt had been thrown out of a public swimming pool. The experience of Jim Crow in 1949 reminded my father of Germany in 1936. Years later, the ugliness of segregation eclipsed everything else in my father's recounting of that trip.

Although he disliked affirmative action, he did approve of reaching out to the economically disadvantaged with education and job opportunities. I believe my father would have probably voted for Obama. We probably would have a weekly debate over the telephone in the months leading up to election day with no one budging in their opinions.

My conversation with my daughter reminded me of the great strides our country has made in race relations. Despite this, I still feel we have a long way to go. There is lingering bigotry on both sides of the racial divide. People are still very self conscious about racial matters. Suspicions still linger.

But we may take pride in some things as a nation. Northern Ireland, Yugoslavia and Rwanda were all places that were multi ethnic yet mono racial. Each of them became bloody battle grounds. The same can be said of more than a few countries in Africa. America is evolving an inclusive national identity that spans the entire racial spectrum. We are far from perfect. We interned Japanese Americans in World War Two. There was the murder of Native peoples on a wide scale. There was slavery and then segregation. What has redeemed us from these blights on our nation's history? We are able to feel shame. Not only this, we are able to dream and work to bring our dreams to fruition. We do have a national conscience and a sense of decency that have helped us in finding the road from which we have strayed.

I did not go to Washington with my daughter. But I caught a fresh glimpse through her eyes Through her sighting of a figure in the White House waving back to her class, I can see today the long road America has traveled.

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