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Race becomes less of an issue

January 04, 2009|By KATE COLEMAN

I don't remember the specific assignment, but my report for Mr. Capista's eighth-grade English class at Frank Antonides School in West Long Branch, N.J., was about school desegregation.

I included a photo of a painting clipped from the January 1964 issue of Look magazine.

Norman Rockwell's "The Problem We All Live With" was inspired by 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, flanked by four federal marshals on her way to being the first African-American child to attend an all-white school in the South. (You can see the image and read a transcript of a 1997 interview with Ruby Bridges Hall at www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/race_relations; click on "jan-june97," then on "bridges.")

I grew up in a very white world.

My parents were not bigoted. I recall feeling righteous pride when my mom decimated the arguments of racist acquaintances. But almost always, when referring to people, my mom identified them by ethnicity. She didn't do it in a demeaning way. I believe it was just the way things were in the world in which she lived from 1918 to 2007.

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Change is incredibly, painfully slow, but there is evidence that it's happening.

One of my most satisfying moments as a parent occurred in about 1989. My elementary school-age kids had come home from the first day of school, and amidst the news was mention of a new kid in each of their classes.

It wasn't until several weeks later when I met the "new" children in the parking lot, that I learned they were black. Neither of my children thought to mention it. It wasn't even an issue. Not on their radar screens.

I realize that's not a big deal in the big picture of race relations in the United States. But it represented generational progress - a leap from the way the world was viewed by my kids' grandmother.

My world still is very white. I do have few black acquaintances, including a former colleague who stays in touch. She phones once in awhile, checking up on me, updating me on her work in Washington, D.C., her graduate studies, her opportunities. I smile when she calls me "Mama Kate."

It still shocks me to think that little Ruby Bridges needed protection and that she was the only child in her class for more than a year because whites boycotted and refused to send their children to school.

It makes me crazy to think that it's still an issue - that some people have a problem with a man who is black being elected president.

In his "A More Perfect Union" remarks last March in Philadelphia - dubbed his "race speech" in headlines - presidential candidate Barack Obama acknowledged that the United States might not ever be a perfect union, "but generation after generation has shown that it can always be perfected." He said it's the attitudes, beliefs and "openness to change" of America's next generation that give him hope in that possibility.

In a day-after-Christmas interview on public television's "The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer," Michael Gerson called the country's financial crisis the key political event of 2008. It was, he said, "a test of temperament." A senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, Gerson is a Washington Post columnist who served as a policy adviser and chief speechwriter to President George W. Bush from 2000 to 2006.

Obama looked solid and constant, Gerson said, "like you could trust him and imagine him as president of the United States."

Gerson's assessment is that the 2008 presidential election was not about race - "an extraordinary development."

"That's real progress in American history and American politics," he said.

I am happy to agree.

Kate Coleman covers the Maryland Symphony Orchestra and writes a monthly column for The Herald-Mail.

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