Pollster Stanley Greenberg and political operative James Carville, last year, reported on a series of focus groups with older, white Republicans in Georgia. They were on a quest to understand the hardcore opposition to Obama. Is it racist?
They concluded no. They admonished us to "Get over it." The animus to Obama, they claimed, is "based in the same unwavering, bedrock conservative principles that have always led them to oppose liberal policies. Some of their subjects even claim to be post racial-"proud" there is an African-American president.
I have my own informal focus group, and I'm not buying it.
I work as a psychologist in nursing homes, and I talk daily to the older salt of the earth. The other day I assessed the cognitive status of an 87-year-old male member of the Greatest Generation, and realized yet again how enmeshed racism is in our cultural DNA.
He seemed reasonably reasonable, only his toe dipping in the pool of mild dementia. He still recognized everybody. Could name all his grandchildren, outline his work history, and share anecdotes about the war. So what if he couldn't exactly remember exactly which day it was in October. He remembered it was October. I dare you to try to keep track of the day of the week if you are in an institution and don't find the newspaper on your doorstep every morning to begin your day. Not as easy as you think.
Then I asked this standard question:
"Who is the president of the United States ?"
And there you have it. Hitting me like a slap across the face in the privacy of the consultation room I uncover the racism left out of the polite society of focus groups.
Sure it's anecdotal, but I believe it.
One of the effects of a little dementia is that it disinhibits. It's like you're in that movie where they put the spell on you, and you are compelled to say whatever's on your mind.
Being not always recognizable as a Jew, I get my share of anti-Semitic outbursts too.
I have to believe that the n-word, and its more gentile variants, is on the minds if not the tongues of older Georgians, younger Georgians, and millions of other Americans.
I'm not saying it's the whole stew of Obama derangement, but it's surely a condiment.
I plead some guilt here too, but I'll throw myself on the mercy of the court-with an explanation.
My grandparents came here 100 years ago from the Ukraine where the Jews were the functional equivalent of people of color. They were the disenfranchised other, recognizable not for their skin color, but the black color of their clothes, and they could be easily located for pogroms since they lived in those segregated neighborhoods that gave rise to the word ghetto.
I have no direct knowledge of my grandparents' racial attitudes-they died when I was a child-but I do know the ambivalent feelings of their daughter, my mother, a foot soldier in the Great Depression with standard issue, New Deal liberal leanings. She told me of a union dance in the 1930s.
"A black man asked me to dance, and I just couldn't do it. I said ‘I'm not dancing', so to be fair I didn't dance at all that night."
By not dancing with a any man, black or white-and my mother loved to dance-she was able to go home with if not a clear, at least not a dark conscience.
I grew up in Brooklyn. Although the city was multi-racial, the neighborhoods were segregated and provincial. In my elementary school, among hundreds of children, there was literally one black kid-the janitor's son from the apartment house across the street from me.
Put me in any focus group and I'm off the charts in my answers to all the progressive questions but my color blindness is like a second language learned in adulthood. I can order a meal, ask directions to the men's room, but I will never dream in it. In my reptilian brain, skin color remains the other. But that's what makes us human. We can control the reptilian brain.
Who knows where I'll be when I'm old and gray and my brain is losing its ability to censor?
But one hundred years can make a difference.
My children, because of my desire to do the right thing, have attended what we PC-types like to call culturally diverse schools. Color blindness is in my children's reptilian brains. They can dream in it.
My older boy was talking about an actor in a movie. He couldn't remember his name.
"He was the one with the glasses."
I looked it up. It was Samuel L. Jackson.
I would have said, "The black guy." For my son, it was the glasses.
Not a hint of the n-word there.
My book, Nasty, Brutish, and Long: Adventures in Old Age and the World of Eldercare (Avery/Penguin, 2009) was a Finalist for the 2010 Connecticut Book Award. Click here to read the first chapter. It provides a unique, insider's perspective on aging in America. It is an account of my work as a psychologist in nursing homes, the story of caregiving to my frail, elderly parents--all to the accompaniment of ruminations on my own mortality. Thomas Lynch, author of The Undertaking calls it "A book for policy makers, caregivers, the halt and lame, the upright and unemcumbered: anyone who ever intends to get old."