Of course, racism didn't end on Jan. 20, 2009. There even was a (currently dormant) blog mocking the idea called, natch, Racism is Over. Yet this past weekend, lunching and dining with fellow educated Americans of European origin whom I would have thought knew better, I was brought face to face with the persistence of racism.
Don't believe it? Here are two instances in one day.
Item one: Lunch. A government lawyer complained to me about the admittedly absurd absence notes from one colleague (e.g., "my cat has a headache") and the administrative assistant who apparently manages to work all day without turning on the computer on her desk. His girlfriend proceeded to generalize about how people of the ethnicity of the two goldbrickers (whisper: "black") tend to be like that.
So I try reason: President Obama is African-American and he seems pretty hard working to me. The reply? "That's the exception."
Then I begin to make a list in my mind of black intellectuals, artists, legal scholars, biblical scholars -- and I stop. It's no use: everything has been prejudged. The only sane response is given by my companion, who insists that these comments are simply wrong.
Item two: Dinner. I express concern for my younger son's exposure to mortal danger given his choice of career (law enforcement) and a fellow diner who is a health care consultant with umpteen degrees blurts out, "Especially in D.C., which has a 70 percent black population." The implication, of course, is that the murder rate has something to do with blacks, because as we all know, whites never kill anyone.
For the second time in one day, I am dumbfounded.
I genuinely liked these people who, admittedly, were recent acquaintances. The lawyer was less of a surprise. He had admitted to being Republican -- and I'd wondered how and why -- but I gave this attorney the benefit of the doubt, assuming he was a harmless, traditional Republican, of the sort who bemoaned the loss of the gold standard, but was otherwise enlightened. There are a scant few.
The consultant, however, was utterly baffling. An active Presbyterian who had argued with me on matters of principle ... how could an informed Christian hold such obviously racist views?
This is where I am stuck. There's an almost unconscious prevalence of views that can't be called anything else but racist.
I admit I am biased -- not on the basis of color -- against certain kinds of people. I lampoon the Southern good ol' boy with gusto (and I figure the heirs of the Confederacy deserve a taste of their own medicine). But I would readily admit to anyone that what I really know about the South and Southerners fits in a thimble. This is merely satire of a stereotype, not sociology.
But the people with whom I was speaking were, in contrast, pretty sure they were right, that the facts backed them. They were almost surprised that anyone would question such opinions.
Here we are in 2009 and one still hears outrageous things about ethnicity from Americans who have distinguished academic and professional careers, people who profess in every other respect to be civilized and open-minded.
When I try to find a reason why, I am stuck.