Being black and white in America

Summer, 1990. I’m looking something up in the Harvard Law Review, and I notice the name of the review president on the issue’s masthead: Barack Obama. My first thought (I’m white, by the way): A black guy is president of the Harvard Law Review. My second thought: He’s got one of those "radical" names politicized people gave their kids in the 1960s. My third thought: I wonder if this is an affirmative action thing?

Welcome to being black in America.

October 31, 2008. I go with my friend Dave to the Colorado College-Denver University hockey game. It’s a big rivalry, and the arena is packed with several thousand fans. Two hours or so into the event, as I’m going out into the concourse to buy some beer, I’m suddenly struck by the fact that I literally haven’t seen a non-white face all night.

That is part of what it is to be white in America: You can spend two hours among 5,000 other people who are all white without noticing that every single other person happens to be white.

June 22, 1938: James Earl Carter, a substantial person in his part of rural Georgia, is one of the few people in the area who owns a radio (he has a 13-year-old son who will one day be president of the United States). He is known as a generous man, and the poor black farmers in the area approach him with a request: Could they come to his place to listen the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling fight?

(This famous boxing match is being touted by the Nazi government as proof that a black man like Louis can’t defeat the "Aryan superman" Schmeling).

The farmers come in their overalls and work boots and gather around the radio. They listen in absolute silence as Louis destroys Schmeling in less than three minutes. They thank Carter, then walk away together, still in total silence. They cross the railroad tracks that mark the border of Carter’s land. Then they aren’t silent any more.

A cold winter morning more than 20 years ago. The Vietnam War Memorial is a wall of solid black granite, inscribed with the names of the American war dead. Unlike almost all other such monuments, it makes no attempt to justify or explain anything, or to glorify the state. It merely remembers.

A black woman, neither young nor old, is walking very slowly along the wall’s edge. She finds a certain row of names. She reaches out her hand and slowly moves it down the list. She stops and touches one. "My baby," she says.

1965: Lyndon Johnson, a crude, unscrupulous and ruthless politician, who did more for black people in America than any white man other than Abraham Lincoln, is trying to convince the great black civil rights lawyer Thurgood Marshall to become the nation’s Solicitor General.

"Thurgood," he says, "when those racists come to Washington to argue their cases before the Supreme Court, I want them to look into this office and see a nigger sitting in it."

I don’t know what it’s like to black in America. I’m guessing it has something to do with never quite feeling completely at home. Maybe this morning it feels a little less like that.

It’s the custom of black men in America to refer to each other as "brothers." Maybe this morning we are all brothers, or at least a little more than we were yesterday.

These lines are by America’s greatest poet, Walt Whitman. They are about, among other things, brotherhood:

Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged

Missing me one place search another,

I stop somewhere waiting for you.



(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)