Is Kamala Harris “Black Enough”? Am I “White Enough”?

By | July 29, 2019 | 0 Comments

Obsession with race used to be the province of far-right reactionaries, as exemplified by the KKK and the Nazis. Now, however, it is the province of left-wing people who call themselves “progressive,” but who in fact are throwbacks to an earlier age, a time when race was the first consideration in evaluating a person.

Critics of Sen. Kamala Harris object that she isn’t “black enough.” Her mother was an immigrant from India, and her father is an immigrant from Jamaica. He is black, but is he African American? His ancestors came from Africa and he is an American. But he doesn’t share the history of African Americans. So where does that leave us?

When Barack Obama first ran for president in 2008, some questioned whether he was “black enough” to deserve the support of black voters. And after he was elected, and many Americans were rejoicing at this sign of improvement in race relations, actor Morgan Freeman opined that we had yet to elect our first black president, because Obama was “mixed race.” True, his mother was white. But how black is “black enough”? In fact, is Freeman “black enough”?

What about HUD Secretary Dr. Benjamin Carson? What about scholars Dr. Thomas Sowell and Dr. Walter Williams? All three of these gentlemen are quite black in complexion. In fact, they are blacker than Rev. Jeremiah Wright, Obama’s mentor, and blacker than agitator Rev. Al Sharpton. But they are conservative, so their “blackness” is questioned, while Wright and Sharpton are “progressive,” so their “blackness” is never questioned.

Similarly, when Sen. Marco Rubio was a presidential hopeful, some pundits opined that he isn’t “Latino enough.” True, both his parents were Latino. But he is of Cuban ethnicity, and Cubans – at least of the older generation – tend to be conservative and staunchly anti-communist. But how Latino is “Latino enough”? The same ridiculous question was asked about Ted Cruz.

And when Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed to the Supreme Court, pundits agreed that she was our first Latino justice. But what about Benjamin Cardozo, who served on the Court from 1932 from 1938? True, his ancestors came from Spain and Portugal, but he was a Jew. Did that mean he wasn’t “Latino enough”? You see the trouble we’re getting into.

So what did the pundits mean? They couldn’t mean that Obama’s views were too conservative – assuming, of course, that a “real black” must be a liberal. Almost all his positions were well to the left of center. Did the pundits mean that having a white mother implied he isn’t “black enough”? If so, why did they claim Tiger Woods as a black golfer, when his mother is Asian? Or did they mean that Obama didn’t grow up in the inner city and thereby acquire “black” culture?

What do “black enough” or “Latino enough” really mean? Do they simply mean “liberal enough”? Do they mean different things to different people? Do they mean anything at all? So let me ask a similar question: Am I “white enough”?

At first glance, this question seems absurd. I have fair skin and green eyes. I don’t tan well. My father never tanned at all. He was a redhead with pale blue eyes and skin so white he could have been mistaken for an albino. But was he “white enough”? Not to the Poles, among whom he spent his early years – they considered him a Zhid, a Jew who could never be a Pole because he was of an inferior group.

That’s why he came to America as a teenager. When World War I broke out, he entered the U.S. Army and was sent to France as a private in the infantry. I still have his dog tag. All it lists is his name, his number, and U.S.A. His eldest brother stayed in Poland. He also got a number. It was tattooed on his arm by the Nazis. They didn’t just believe he wasn’t “white enough;” they acted on their belief.

That’s the risk we run with racist ideology – someone, somewhere will act on it.

Because he decided to leave the racism, religious bigotry, and class system of Europe behind, my father survived, got married, and put himself through medical school. He was admitted despite a quota against Jews. You see, even in the America of that era, he wasn’t “white enough.” Still, he was accepted at a Catholic hospital for internship, and had a distinguished career as a physician.

Eventually I applied to medical school. My first interviewer was sympathetic, and I thought my chances were good. But my second interviewer was unfriendly and insisted I had an accent. I pointed out that I had spent my first eight years in North Dakota and had been told I sounded like someone from Chicago. But the interviewer claimed I said “going” as if it were “goink.” No one else ever told me I had a Yiddish accent. Despite my green eyes and fair skin, I wasn’t “white enough” for him.

I began my clinical rotation in medical school on the surgical service. One night, after my patient’s appendectomy had been completed, I walked into the next operating room to see what was happening. The chief resident was performing some kind of abdominal surgery, so I knew it was a difficult case and peered over people’s shoulders, hoping to learn. I did, but not about surgery – about something even more important.

The patient was completely covered in sterile drapes, so all I could see was the incision itself. His face was blocked off from the operating field, and the anesthesiologist was keeping him alive while the surgeons worked. I observed for several minutes before I noticed the patient’s hand just protruding from the drapes. It was black. I had spent some time looking at his internal organs, but had no idea he was African American.

It struck me then that we humans are so stupid that we spend a good deal of our precious time and energy concerning ourselves with the least important part of a person – the outer few millimeters of the skin – while we often ignore the much more important aspects of the body, the mind, and the spirit. What a colossal waste of time.

Both biology and religion teach that each one of us is unique, unlike anyone else who ever lived or is ever likely to live. Isn’t that good enough? Do we have to invent phony reasons to feel superior to others? Don’t we have enough real problems? Have we cured cancer and ended terrorism, so we now have time for trivia?

We have come a long way toward eliminating racism from our national life. But we still have work to do. Are Kamala Harris and Barack Obama “black enough”? Are Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz “Latino enough”? Is Tiger Woods “multiethnic enough”? Am I “white enough”? Who knows? Who cares? Get a life.

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