We have made great strides in race relations in the United States over the past 50 years, primarily as a result of the civil rights movement. We can be proud of our nation’s historic achievements in racially integrating our military, our colleges and universities, our grade schools and many of our centers of worship.
Each of these spheres has produced excellent and universally respected leaders from racial minorities. I need only cite retired Army Gen. Colin Powell of the military; Dr. Ruth Simmons of Brown University; Chang-Lin Tien of the University of California, Berkeley; Los Angeles math teacher Jaime Escalante; and the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes of Harvard University, to name a few.
However, the issue of race continues to lurk beneath the surface as a major cause of social and economic divisions in our society, and even enmity among some Americans of different ethnic backgrounds. Much of the racial antipathy that we experience in our society is based on a lack of knowledge and trust of each other. Our social gains notwithstanding, racial distrust still manifests itself in every aspect of societal and political relations among the various ethnic groups in America, particularly among black and white.
Perhaps nothing illustrates this distrust better than the words of an elderly African American man interviewed during the civil rights struggles in the South. He was asked when he thought American whites and blacks could come together in equality, mutual respect and friendship.
“Unfortunately, not in my lifetime,” he replied. “Because the white man doesn’t trust the black man, and the black man doesn’t trust the white man. The white man does not trust the black man because he does not know him, and the black man does not trust the white man because he does know him.”
Nowhere is the lack of knowledge and trust more evident than in the politics surrounding the presidential candidacy of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., an intelligent, eloquent and well-trained statesman who has all of the qualities of a national and international leader. Yet his campaign for president of the United States continues to be marred by racial misinformation, prejudice and the specter of distrust.
On a daily basis, we are reminded by media pundits and other Americans of all races that Barack Obama is black, a racial appellation that is too often invoked to imply “less than white” and untrustworthy by some in our society. This example of racial labeling vividly demonstrates that race is a social construct that is embedded in the psyche of many Americans, but has absolutely no biological foundation.
In a recent discussion of the presidential election campaign in Washington, D.C., a well-meaning group of white Americans continually referred to Obama as “black,” and indicated that he would have difficulty getting votes from many white American who simply distrusted blacks. To which this African American scientist replied: “Barack Obama is as white as you are, and as black as I am. And if anyone has a problem voting for him because of his skin color, then that person can only be described as a racist.”
Biologically, humans have approximately 30,000 genes, of which only eight genes or variants code for, or express, skin color. The incessant tagging of Obama as “black” by media and by individuals reflects either an ignorance of biology or a deliberate attempt to persuade or dissuade voters. We all have 46 paired (diploid) chromosomes that carry DNA information in every living cell. Twenty-three of these unpaired sex chromosomes (haploid) are carried in the egg of the mother and 23 different sex chromosomes are carried in the sperm of the father. Thus, each child inherits half of their DNA from their mother and the other half from their father, which come together to create a distinctive offspring with a full compliment of 46 chromosomes.
Barack Obama has a white European American mother from Kansas who inherited her genetic material from two European American parents. Obama’s father is an African who inherited his genetic material from his Kenyan parents. Therefore, Sen. Barack Obama is biologically half-European-descended, half-African-descended, 100 percent human, and all American.
Some of us have spent most of our lives trying to teach others that we are all part of a single human race, and that ethnicity is much less important than character and ability. Our judgments and trust of Sen. Barack Obama’s suitability for president of the United States should not be based on whether he is perceived as black or white. Rather, he should be judged on his character, skills and achievements, his compassion, his knowledge of his country and the world, and most of all, his ability to be an effective leader of our nation for the next four years.
Dr. S. Allen Counter is the founding director of The Harvard Foundation.