FRANKFORT — Recent comments by Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul and by U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have me thinking about the taboo subject of race in America.
Reid was asked about the monolithic opposition by Congressional Republicans to anything proposed by Barack Obama, America’s first African American president.
“I hope – and I say this seriously – I hope that’s based on substance and not the fact that he’s African American,” Reid answered.
Republicans howled and accused Reid of playing “the race card.” South Carolina Republican Sen. Tim Scott – the Senate’s only African American – called Reid’s comments “shameful.”
Still, consider this. One 2008 presidential candidate was born outside the United States: John McCain was born in Panama. But it was the candidate from Hawaii whose eligibility was questioned.
Paul was asked about election laws passed in some southern states in the wake of the Supreme Court ruling on the Voting Rights Act. He rightly called Jim Crow-era literacy tests “an abomination,” but went on to say that there is “no objective evidence” of current efforts to suppress African American voters.
Last summer the Pennsylvania House Majority Leader, Republican Mike Turzai, said that state’s new voter registration and I.D. law would “allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” (Courts threw the law out prior to the election.)
I’m not accusing anyone of racism. I genuinely believe Paul’s political philosophy is based on his belief that his positions are intellectually justified and not based in anyway on caste or social superiority.
But my life is full of personal examples of how whites and blacks perceive the world very differently.
A couple of months ago, I pulled into a parking lot to take a call on my cell phone. As I talked, I absent-mindedly flipped the lock-unlock button. Suddenly, there was an angry young black man yelling outside my car. At first I was confused – until it suddenly occurred to me why.
It was something I’d never thought about. A couple of weeks later, I heard Obama talking about how common it is for young black men to hear car locks clicking as they walk by.
Years ago, while visiting a rural high school, I noticed several pickups with Confederate “Stars and Bars” plates in the student parking lot. I knew some of those kids and I asked them why they displayed the plates. They all told me the same thing: it was about pride in their southern heritage and had nothing to do with race and I believed most of them.
But I also knew that slavery was the foundation on which that heritage was constructed and that every African American who saw those plates interpreted an entirely different message.
A friend of mine asks me if it’s not equally racist for an African American to vote for Obama simply because he’s black as it is for a white person to vote against Obama for the same reason. Both are obviously racial responses. But there’s a big difference between having the chance for the first time in your life to vote for someone “who looks like me” than rejecting someone simply because he doesn’t.
Be honest. If the first 43 presidents had been black, would it surprise you that I – as a white man – might relish the opportunity to vote for a white candidate? If Hillary Clinton runs in 2016, don’t you think there’ll be at least some Republican women who vote for her?
We live side by side in the same world but usually in two absolutely different realities. We all should try much harder to see the other one.
Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort, Ky. He may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort