National Catholic Register


When the Politics of Race Come Home


May 18-24, 2008 Issue | Posted 5/13/08 at 1:44 PM


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 pregnancy.

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 that.

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 Northern Ireland.

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 history right.

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.