I cringe every time a black person is on the news doing something stupid and/or illegal. I know I should not take ownership for the misdeeds of others simply because I have the same skin color. I also know that there are people who will judge me based on those behaviors. More than that, I know there are those who look to those images and behaviors as proof of what they already think. Now in my fourth decade on this earth, the persistent thought of race is new to me. Other than the uproar Buju Banton's Brownin' caused in the late 80s and some self-deprecating phrases in our vernacular, race in Jamaica is primarily the domain of historians and academics. For good or for bad, the people on TVJ and CVM news look like me. Reports are not prefaced with racial descriptors and there are no color tallies of the victims or the perpertrators. There are no celebrations of color firsts and there is no need for affirmative action policies.
It is undeniably different in the United States. With the black senator from Illinois close to being the next president of the United States, race is a constant undertone, if not always explicitly verbalized. It appears to me that the people who speak out the loudest about race are those on the fringes - those incensed that the negroes are not grateful for what they have and those being crippled by the white conspiracy to keep the black man down.
Senator Barack Obama himself is fodder for the argument that black people in American have no cause for complaint. One Talk of the Nation (National Public Radio) listener lamented on Tuesday that more than equal, now white people were being prejudiced against. The white mother of teenagers said she will not vote for Obama because he is black and she thinks it is unfair that her daughters will not have the opportunities he had. I am not sure exactly what opportunities that woman was referring to. It may be that she, like many others, assume that every successful person of color benefited from affirmative action policies.
I have not made up my mind about the wisdom and/or fairness of affirmative action, but I have heard good arguments from people I respect on the merits of leveling the field for black students, professionals and entrepreneurs. One thing I know for sure is that affirmative action does not reward the undeserving or the unqualified. It says to companies and college administrators look at the best available across the room. If Senator Obama did benefit from such a policy (and I have seen or heard no evidence that he has) it is because he was among the best. His candidacy is not so much evidence that all things are now equal, but more so of his intelligence, ambition and his refusal to accept that they are not. As my husband says, we will know things are equal when a black George W. can be president, ie drug and alcohol abuser with a C average and a record of low performance in every job he has ever had.
Things are not equal, but anyone who would argue that black people are no better off than they were 40 years ago needs to put down that heavy chip from off their shoulder. Today, economics plays a much greater role in dictating the outcome of a child's life than his/her race. It is true that many black families are below or near the poverty line. It is true that black children in large numbers go to schools that are overcrowded and that do not prepare them adequately for college. It is true that many black people live in neighborhoods that are plagued with crime and violence. It is true that many of the social ills that ail the black community are the direct result of years of discrimination and oppression.
It is also true that equality does not mean easy. We may need to study more, work longer, and push harder against those doors to opportunities, but this generation makes it easier for the next. Maybe one day donkey will say the world is level. (Ask a Jamaican.)