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Race and Politics

Race and Politics Call-out

We are getting closer to the launch of our web and radio series on Race and Politics but we still need your help. Send your views to Get My Vote, an online space created by NPR for people to explain their core political beliefs and share personal stories this election season. We are particularly interested in folks supporting Senator John McCain given that we have a good number of entries from Barack Obama supporters.

Here's a sampling from the responses we have gotten so far:

Raised Racist
"Here's how I first became aware of race: I was four. My father and I were at the checkout stand in a liquor store. A dark-skinned old man in denim overalls took a place in line at the counter next to me. I had never seen anyone that color before. The old man smiled at me, and I smiled back. I turned to my father and asked, "Who's that?" He hissed: "Shhhh, I'll tell you later!"

The Truth About Race
Im going to say some things here that I think alot of people would like to say and are afraid to. Im going to say alot of things here that many people will probably get bent out of shape over. Im going to say some things here that might possibly ban this letter from appearing on "Get My Vote." Im going to tell the truth from a white mans point of view.



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Our Skin Color Impacts the Trajectory of Our Lives

As a white male in my early 20s, I was living the American dream as I climbed the corporate ladder. The tragic experience of a childhood friend called into question how much of my success was due to my own efforts versus the 'head start' I had on others. Below is a link to that story that caused me to question my success and subsequent commitment to do something about the realizations to which I came.

It saddens me to report that twenty years after the event that changed my life trajectory, I had another experience of race that reinforced its huge impact on our lives. An African American teen that I had mentored for 5 years, desperately trying to pull himself out of the poverty he was born into, was killed randomly in his neighborhood. And the cycle continues...

Just because our biases are unconscious and personal racism a rarity today does not mean that the color of ones skin does not have a dramatic impact on the lives each of us will lead.

- Mark

Big City Mountaineers executive director Mark Godley began his career in the corporate world, selling computer software and technology. But the tragic and violent death of a childhood friend made him rethink his career path. Godley quit his job and has since devoted his personal and professional life to the service of others. SNEWS?? Live spoke to Godley in a recent interview to bring you this story.

Sent by mark godley | 9:41 AM | 7-20-2008

As a boy of 12 years old in the summer of 1960 I played on the Eberheart Playground Softball team. I was one of five or six younger players who rode the bench until we knew the game was won. We were put in the game at that point, that summer we won all our games. Before the last out was made in the game I noticed that (one) the older players were packing up and getting in the cars, and (two) the field was completely surrounded by white folks. This particular playground was Anthony Wayne. Anthony Wayne was in an Italian neighborhood. They never played on our field we always had to come and play on their playground. When the last out was made all other players made a mad dash to the cars to get out of there. At the same time the ones who were left or last to leave the field the younger players, were pelted with rocks and sticks and for the first time a white person called me a nigger, and a few other words. Three of us younger players got left behind and I had to run down the middle of a busy street. Crying and fear struck! At one point I found myself knocking on peoples windows and you know they had to have seen the mob chasing after us, but they would not let us in and I was terrified. I escaped the mob that day, but my view of white people had forever been changed. Up until that summer I had white neighbors and playmates, and classmates, but by that summer all my playmates and neighbors had moved out of the neighborhood. I was approaching junior high and it was about to become integrated which created a lot of new confrontations.

Sent by Maarafu Z. Ojo | 10:26 AM | 7-20-2008

I grew up in several very-predominantly-white communities in New England. From a kid's perspective, I considered that my family was accepted and "normal" enough. My parents are of mixed heritage, but dark enough to be noticed in the towns we lived in. And so were we five boys.

Both my parents had completed high school (with honors). My father continued, eventually earning a PhD in organic chemistry in the late 1950s. My mother studied art and design and is an accomplished amateur painter. They were insistent that we study and achieve toward the highest levels we could. In consequence, we studied and read beyond virtually all of our peers, and though our grades didn't always score in the highest tier, our comprehension developed vastly beyond the average.

All five sons (and my father's later 4 children as well) attended college. We hold among us 9 bachelors degrees, 3 masters, a JD, and an MD. 3 of us served in the U. S. armed forces. We have taken advanced technical courses in electronics, control systems, bicycle mechanics, literature, history, and business.

My personal resume is one that any candidate would be proud of. However, when unemployed a year or so ago, I had difficulty getting an interview, much less a job offer. There is no subject in which I cannot study and become competently conversant. I have proven time and again that I can accomplish challenging tasks and gather the scope of business quickly and effectively to produce top results.

So what happens? Why aren't employers banging on the door? If I could get 10 employees like me, wouldn't I double my business in 12 months? Sure I would. But the Hispanic surname, dark skin tone, apparent youth (did I mention that my family shows few signs of aging before 75?), and non-regulation hair seem off-putting.

I think America has a major problem not merely with race, but with any person or group determined to be different. While much lip-service is given to our inclusiveness and embracing of "diversity" it typically means that a person may be accepted so long as he/she is willing to not act differently. These "preferences" on the part of dominant society are such that most of "white" society remain unaware of the bases on which they make their choices.

Couple these factors with the separate communities in which Latinos, Blacks, and Whites live, and you may discover just how un-united this country really is. I am encouraged somewhat looking at the attitudes of my children and their friends. I genuinely think that they can teach us all lessons of acceptance and appreciation of merit.

That is not to say that some young people of the same generation are not being taught the biases and bigotries of their parents. Both are happening simultaneously. What we can help and change is incorporating these biases into law and business practice. The NAACP for many years has proclaimed the motto "The mind is a terrible thing to waste." Think of the meaning of the words. When we see a child who for one reason or another doesn't complete school, get a meaningful job, turns to violence and crime, do we see a person who might in other circumstances help to find a cure for cancer or crop blight or clean energy? We must. We cannot afford to fail one single member of our society, and yet we do so every day for the most foolish of reasons. We mistrust the person's heritage. We must become a society and a world that can do better.

Sent by Diego | 11:51 AM | 7-20-2008

I am an English speaking Latino of Mexican origin. I get my news from the English media hardly from the Spanish side. However I check their content every now and then. Since I obtained the right to vote by becoming a Naturalized US Citizen, I've used my vote to influence Local and National Government. Even though 'every vote counts', I felt that my vote didn't have any effect last presidential election. Most new legal immigrants cannot vote, because they are not Citizens yet. However they will join marches to show force and allegiance to the issues that affect their status. Those who become citizens also become skeptical about voting or becoming a Republican or a Democrat because their experience back home did not yield the result they hoped for. In their view; "All Politicians are crooks". To get their vote the candidates will have to seat at their table to talk and convince them that they are a Citizens, just like anyone else and not just Brown and invisible. To get to us Latinos we need more than political speech clich??s and few chopped up words in Spanish. Latinos are though customers, but once you get us on your wagon, we become loyal followers.

Sent by Raul Sanchez | 12:07 PM | 7-20-2008

The fall of 1960, I started a newly integrated middle school,Audubon Jr. High.We had race fights every day seem like.I remember the white friends that I had in elementary school hung out with the white students.I tried to hang but my brother told me to leave them alone.Because I grew up with whites next door and had white playmates/school mates,until the summer of 1960.I didn't understand a lot of things.Down the street from my school was this big catholic high school,Benedictine.The boys at Benedictine got out of school at 3 o'clock and we got out at 3:30.About ten or so of them would hid and jump two or three of us younger boys.It would always be more of them than us.One day we got out of school at 2:30 and my brother and his friends had us go the same way at the same time when they would jump us.About ten of the white boys chased us down the street where my brother and some of the ninth graders from our school, were laying in wait.It wasn't even ten of them,but the boys from Benedictine tried to run,but they got their butts kicked that day.We got called the N-word but they never jumped us again.I read that white people only tolerate 11% integration before they get nervous and start to move out.

Sent by Maarafu Z. Ojo | 12:47 PM | 7-20-2008

Race and Politics

Barack Obama IS NOT an African-American

This whole pursuit of race and politics was likely initiated by the success of Barack Obama in this presidential election to date. Certainly consideration over the importance of the Hispanic vote and issues pertaining to Muslims and/or Islamic believers may be contributory. Nonetheless, the color of Obama's skin is the foundation of this debate. Despite all the hoopla, Barack Obama is NOT an African-American. This argument is not about percentages of genes. This argument is based on culture and history.

Allow me first to define an African-American. Simply put, African-Americans are descendents of slaves brought to America from Africa. These slaves were brought mostly from several West African countries. These people, my people, have experienced many generations and hundreds of years of economic discrimination, social isolation, educational deprivation and all the things the dogs and fire hoses and lynchings and burning crosses symbolize. I was alive when they had the bus boycotts and when America killed Martin Luther King, Medger Evers and Malcolm X. My grandfather was alive when it was illegal to educate Black people. None of Obama's ancestors have experienced any of the foregoing. None of Obama's ancestors have experienced what characterizes the essence of being an African-American.

Barack Obama learned about being Black in America after leaving the comfortable confines of his Caucasian upbringing. Hanging out with Michelle no doubt helped him experience a little bit of what it feels like to be Black in America. White Americans see the color of his skin. No doubt before all of this celebrity they reacted on occasion in their usual and customary fashion to a Black man being in their midst. Thus Obama can be sensitive in a real sort of way to the plight of African-Americans.

To develop this analogy a bit further, citizens of Africa, the Caribbean countries, or South American countries who have genetic make-up of African origin are not labeled African--American. They may have similar skin pigmentation, hair texture or whatever, but they are not considered African- Americans. In America at least, they do not receive the vigorous opposition to progress the folks from "the hood" experience. A better analogy perhaps lies in the observation that settlers of Australia and Georgia were both groups of British prisoners and such. They share genetic make up and skin color. No one sees Australians and white people from Georgia as the same socially or culturally. They are more similar anthropologically than a half white; half Kenyan man is to an African-American.

Barack Obama is half White. He was raised by white people, mostly by women. Nevertheless, I will concede philosophically that he could be construed as a Black

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man. Genetically, socially and culturally he could at least equally be considered a White man.

Barack Obama has charisma, leadership skills and charm unsurpassed since the candidacy of Ronald Reagan. Unlike Reagan, Obama is also youthful and vigorous, intelligent and well-educated. These realities make him an obvious candidate for political pursuits. These virtues alone would accomplish much more than the color of his skin. I hope that at least my grandchildren will live to see a day when race does not matter. But let's be real here. America is only a couple of decades ahead of places like South Africa when it comes to racial progress. There are many parallels and overlap in the history of Mandela and King. Unlike South Africa, people of African descent do not comprise a majority of the voting population. There is no way that in the privacy of a voting booth, when no one knows which box you checked or which hole you punched, that white Americans are going to elect an African-American as President.

Barack Obama, or more likely his advisors and consultants, has played the race card to his own detriment. He should have taken the obvious position that: his father, who played little role in his upbringing, was from Kenya. (In East Africa-not West Africa where most American slaves came from.) His mother is white. He was born in America, educated at Harvard and is...whatever he is. Race did not have to be a major tenet in his candidacy. The white supporters he needs to be elected would have been much more comfortable with such a posture. African-Americans would have still voted for him in huge numbers as long as he did not actively distance himself or inappropriately denigrate them. Many people of diverse or mixed ethnic origin would have still jumped on the rock star-like band wagon. By investing so much political capital in being something he is not, he has likely cost himself an election. Conceivably, the political spin engineers may still have time to minimize all this African-American nonsense and re-make Obama as a candidate who can win.

Thomas J. Locke, III, MD

Sent by thomas J. Locke, III MD | 4:30 PM | 7-20-2008

In 1959, we moved from Rochester, NY to Maplewood, NJ. I was heading into first grade.

When my mother picked me up from Jefferson Elementary School one afternoon, I asked her if I could have some new friends come over to the house to play. She asked me to point out my friends to her. I picked out four or five black kids. She said, "We'll see."

For some weeks, I pestered her to have my friends over. By my father's account of this -- and I have this story from his memory, not mine: a story he told me when he was 81, shortly before he died -- the family was driving in the car and I was after Mom about when my friends could come over. She began to talk about birds.

"You know how the robins always play with robins, and blue jays play with blue jays," she said, warming up, "how and the cute little sparrows play with other sparrows? Well, that's really the best way for things to be..."

And in his telling, my father said that just about that moment, a big pack of dogs ran by -- big ones, little ones, brown ones, black ones, white ones, spotted ones, goldens, shepherds -- and they were having a ball.

And I said, "But, what about the dogs?" And exhibiting a wisdom beyond my years, "Can't we be more like dogs?"

My father -- always the driver -- just kept his hands on the wheel and looked straight ahead, but he told me that he was chuckling inside. He said, "There went your mother's argument, straight down in flames."

But, you know, those kids never did come over.

I was seven years old.

Now, I've been involved with African-American people and culture, to my own surprise, longer than even I remembered. I befriended the first black teacher I ever saw, Winfield Pate, in 1967 and sang at Dr. King's memorial service in our high school with him. I went to the Poor People's March on Washington, sang the Civil Rights anthems, raised money and contributions for the local food closet, and sang with Win at local churches, black and white.

For going on four decades as a guitarist and singer, a large portion of my professional life has been spend working as an artist in community and educational settings, presenting programs on the African roots of American music with live performances of acoustic slide guitar, Blues, gospel, work songs, Jazz, Soul Music, and Rhythm & Blues. I've been honoring the African contributions to what America is: by their labor, the artistic ideas, the African musical, and cultural retentions in performances for nearly thirty of those years.

Hearing this story from my Dad was a stunning thing. It was a surprise. But a surprise that made perfect sense. He knew well before I remembered that I was somehow attuned to black life and black friendship.

Standing on his and my mother's shoulders, I reached where they could not reach. I am grateful for them and for the life they gave me. I have many friends and revered colleagues, black and white.

But, I wish I knew where those kids were now.

Scott Ainslie

Sent by Scott Ainslie | 8:59 PM | 7-20-2008

I am sure I am not alone. There must be hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of individuals just like me ancestrally. At the age of 55, I realized that my ancestry on my father's side was African-American. Although my grandmother had proudly told my brother and me about her family and our grandfather's family, we had been quite young and did not understand what she was telling us and showing us with family photographs. Both families were from Virginia (my brother and I were not), and when she said that "the slaves were set free", I, naturally, due to our Caucasian skin color, assumed that we were the slave owners. Even though I was young, guilt about such ancestry caused me to put off further questioning for decades, until the changes in my father's physical appearance as he aged caused me to wonder, "were we the MOST rapacious of white slave owners in Virginia, or, were we perhaps African American. Was it WE who had been freed?"
Thanks to family Bibles and papers that had been saved; thanks to finding my grandmother's cousin's son; and thanks to the miracle of the internet, I found my African-American heritage. Information that identifies us specifically only goes back to 1815, but conjectures about who we were go back to Seventeenth Century Barbados, for at least one ancestral line. From 1815 until 1910, all our family members are listed as either "mulatto", "black", or "yellow". No one is "white" until my grandparents (both designated "black" in two previous censuses) seem to "pass" in the 1920 census. I am suspicious that they may have stolen a German boy's identity in order to pass; but I will need more information or help to prove it. By 1850 and 1860, some of our family was listed as Free Persons of Color. On the other hand, my great great grandmother's sister is listed on the Freedman's Bureau Savings Bank application along with the name of her owner. She was a slave until Emancipation. My grandfather's side is also listed as mulatto/black Free Persons of Color; and I do not know if they were ever enslaved, or if they were among the small percentage that arrived in Eastern Shore Virginia before slavery solidified in a racial way. My grandmother also described Powhatan indian ancestry -- which is very hard to prove; but every bit of family history that I was able to trace was based on my grandmother's story. Therefore, I believe there was also Native American ancestry. Because we were mulatto and black, and, of course male and female, the fortunes of various family members after Emancipation seems to have been determined by their EXACT color and their gender. As far as I can tell, only my grandparents passed. Although the oldest woman in my grandmother's Bible winds up "taking in laundry", her son-in-law graduated in the very first class at Howard University Law School and was friends with both Frederick Douglass and one of America's first African-American female lawyers. That man's son also attended Howard University, and he became a teacher, an educator, an African-American newspaper columnist, and an author. I have read two of his books; one is entitled "Race Solidarity" and it is a remarkable document. In it, I believe he tries to blend the ideas of Booker T. Washington with those of W.E.B. DuBois; he reminds his readers of the vast accomplishments of Africans and African-Americans from pre-Colonial times on through the struggles of his present day (1917). He sees some social benefit to Socialism, although he equates it with the loving dictates of Jesus, rather than with the Stalinism still to come. In the book, he tells of "single-handed, labor(ing)" for the 1916 New Maryland Educational Law with "almost equal opportunities for all children, regardless of race". That word "almost" is truly heart-breaking - Jim Crow was to last a LOT longer! What about the people who owned us? There is only one line we can follow there, but they go back to early English merchants living in the Barbados in the Seventeenth Century; they intermarry with the founders of Suffolk, Virginia; are in the Colonial militia and House of Burgesses; attend William and Mary College; and, we believe, the last in that line to own us married Martha Washington's niece, Lucy. I risk losing people on that last point, but my cousin did extensive research on that long before the internet, and the internet confirms his findings. It has been thrilling to do this research right now when there is so much new and splendid scholarship. I have been able to read a book about that Barbadian merchant and a book that tells about our first Howard University graduate. I have seen the obscene racial laws, colonial and federal, that were so horrifically unconscionable, yet so carefully crafted regarding how African-Americans were treated, and designated, down that one drop of blood. I believe that my darker and more intellectual great uncle taught, wrote books and helped write laws to advance the race; but that my grandfather, with less education and from a rural background, felt his best chance as an American was to learn a trade and then start his own business. To do the second part, he had to move out of the city and he had to "pass" to do so. I am the recipient of "white privilege" because of my grandparents decision to "pass". Compare my life of "white privilege" to that of the children suffering today in America's inner cities and areas of rural poverty to understand Race in America. I do believe that the way in which history was taught while I was growing up kept me from immediately understanding my grandmother's story. I am SO pleased to be meeting these wonderful and brave people now, and to be expanding my sense of America's history by reading about the times they lived in. I am currently using my new-found scholarship to correct bigoted views in the local newspaper when I know that a false understanding of our shared history is propelling the prejudice. I am sure I am not alone in having mixed-race background as old as colonialization itself. There must be hundreds of thousands of us, if not millions.

Sent by Ann Wallace Boodon | 2:03 PM | 7-21-2008

The show this morning, August 17, demonstrated the problems with NPR reporting. The Panamanian woman on the show made two factual errors, both of which the host left unchallenged. First she said Obama had an ad complaining about being criticized for a funny name and not looking the people on the bills. Well Obama had no such ad, it was a comment he made in a speech. And, the Republicans did in fact release an ad in July superimposing Obama's face on currency, as a means of ridiculing him. Neither the host nor the other guest challenged her statement. Second, the Panamanian guest also stated that Obama emphasized black too much and did not talk about his white mother and her parents. Are you kidding? That's a constant in Obama's discussion. He has been lavish in his praise of white grandmother and his Kansas heritage. Again, she did not go challenged. Is it because the NPR reporter did not know these things? Or that he doesn't see it as his job to actually challenge people misstatments and simply let them flow out into the radio ether? Either way, it's journalistic malpractice.

Sent by Glenn | 12:52 PM | 8-17-2008

I work for a non-profit that provides program and services in public schools in Philadelphia. Students in Philadelphia schools, as in many urban school systems, are disproportionately minority and poor. Our schools are generally old, in poor shape, without modern libraries, science labs, and technology. We have one of the worst student-teacher ratios in the state. We have many thousands on the waiting lists for publically funded pre-school programs, incuding Head Start. Not surprisingly, we also have extremely low achievement, despite the high standards of the underfunded NCLB Act, and a 50% drop-out rate. Nearby suburbs spend $10,000 more per child than is spent in Philadelphia, due to the inequities of the public funding system. What we have here is government facilitated and publically accepted school segragation based on race and economics. It is amazing to me that people accept this--citizens should be marching in streets, as this situation not only impacts the unfortunate students who must attend these schools, but also everyone else, as our young people are unprepared for employment and citizenship in the 21st century. In a conversation about race and politics, we--educators, politicians, citizens, and ESPECIALLY those of us who are white--need to acknowledge that we are very far from a race-neutral educational system which gives everybody an equal playing field for jobs and college.

Sent by Elise Schiller | 10:51 AM | 8-24-2008