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BY JAY DUNLAP
When my 8-year-old son announced he liked Barack Obama, I
held my tongue: I refrained from launching into the litany of Sen. Obama’s
anti-life policy positions, such as his recent statement that he would encourage
his own young daughter to have an abortion rather than be “punished” by a
But for Leo, my son, I shied away from the issues and simply
said Sen. Obama seems like a nice man, well-educated and well-spoken.
You see, I am white, but Leo and two of my daughters, all
adopted, have black birthfathers.
In his positive statements about Obama, Leo wasn’t saying
anything about policy, of which he is blissfully ignorant; he was speaking in
favor of someone who looks like him.
Leo does this a lot. When watching football or basketball
games on television, Leo often comments to me about players’ race and their
abilities. Though small, Leo himself is athletically gifted, fleet afoot with
excellent eye-hand coordination. He identifies with the “brown guys” (as he
calls them) who excel in the games he watches. I feel the need to affirm him in
But, race being what it is in our society, before long we
must traverse some thorny territory: slavery, injustice, racism, civil rights,
lynchings, burning crosses, the whole gamut of sinful man’s inhumanity to
brothers of different color. Our society as a whole is facing these issues as
it watches the rise of Sen. Obama and deals with matters of race, including the
intemperate comments of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.
Unless you read only The New York Times, you’ve likely come
across Wright’s incendiary sermonizing.
So what does a white parent like me say to our three
half-black children about matters of race? Fortunately, one of the eminent
public intellectuals of our day, Thomas Sowell of Stanford’s Hoover
Institution, has provided a great deal of learned analysis.
In his book Black Rednecks and White Liberals, Sowell, a
black man raised in Harlem, unveils some fascinating history. The culture we
think of as distinctively “black” or “African-American” is in fact traceable to
the hinterlands of Great Britain, particularly the Scottish Highlands and
White men known as “crackers” (short for “wisecrackers”)
before ever coming to America brought to the southern United States a culture
of poor work habits, intemperate use of alcohol, sexual immorality, family
dysfunction and violent response to insults. “Cracker” culture was here before
black slaves were. Even the speech pattern now called “ebonics” is traced back
to Scotland and Ireland — not Africa.
Southern blacks absorbed the “cracker” or “redneck” culture
from poor Southern whites of Scotch-Irish background. But while most
Scotch-Irish both here in America and back in Great Britain eventually rejected
their failed culture and try to do better, Sowell notes too many Southern
blacks became and stayed “rednecks.”
Sad as this history is, the good news is I can tell my son
why he can avoid the so-called “black urban culture” because it’s not really
“black” at all.
Fortunately, many American blacks did not grow up as
“rednecks”; a great many others, like comedian Bill Cosby, have dedicated their
lives to countering the toxic subculture.
Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas gives us a great role model
in his autobiography, My Grandfather’s Son. Thomas himself is certainly a fine
role model, but even better is the grandfather he called “Daddy” and who raised
Clarence from a shoeless black child born in poverty to become one of the most
powerful men in the most powerful nation in history.
“Daddy” was fiercely independent. Raised a Baptist, he
wanted to go deeper than the “emotionalism” in the religious services and
became Catholic. He started in business delivering ice and stove wood but
eventually became moderately successful delivering heating oil.
He had suffered from racism but believed in the American
creed: If he worked hard to earn an honest dollar, he would prosper. He
imparted his strong work ethic and common-sense mentality to his grandsons,
partly through Catholic schools, partly through having Clarence and his brother
work a farm non-stop during their summers so they could never get into trouble.
The results are dramatic.
Clarence Thomas writes that he flirted as a young man with
liberal politics — the kind Barack Obama now espouses — but those ideas simply
didn’t square with his experience and what he had learned from his “Daddy.”
I just hope I’ll be able to pass some of that same integrity
along to Leo — and to all my children.
Racial questions are a central part of our history. They
have become a part of my family.
But, as Thomas Sowell notes, it is vital that we get that
And lives like Clarence Thomas’s, committed to the truth and
the Truth, show what can happen when we do.
Jay Dunlap is a teacher in South Bend, Ind., and the author of Raising
Kids in the Media Age.