All of us know of the visiting Frenchman who was taken by his New York host to the top of the Empire State Building. "Ah!" said the visitor luxuriating in the four-state panoramic view, "It reminds me of sex."
"How in the world does it remind you of sex?" asked the American friend. "Everything reminds me of sex!" explained the Frenchman.
When I learned that Barack Obama was going to be our next president, I was reminded of old Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong. Not everything reminds me of Louis Armstrong, mind you. Just everything the slightest bit like the election of Barack Obama. Why that association? Whenever anybody would ask Satchmo, "What's new?" he would flash that blazing Borealis of a smile and in his throatiest rasp exclaim, "White folks still in the lead!"
Time out, please, while we get something important straight. America is not a racist country. Is there racism in America? Absolutely. But it doesn't mean that America is a racist country. There's filth in Sweden, but that doesn't make Sweden a filthy country. Sweden is a clean country. Not only is America not a racist country, America is a country that will bend over backwards to avoid the appearance of being racist.
In 1989, African-American David Dinkins was a candidate for mayor of New York. During the campaign it was revealed that Dinkins had failed to pay income tax for four straight years. He explained he'd been so busy with public service of one kind of another that the whole question of taxes just slipped his mind. That's right; for four straight years. And David Dinkins was elected. Argue fairly now; Do you really believe a white candidate could have pulled that off?
In early 2008, African-American Rep. Charlie Rangel was revealed as having failed to pay taxes on income derived from the sale of some property he owned in the Dominican Republic. Rangel blamed the failure on some kind of "cultural differences" and the matter obligingly evaporated. Again, change the color, and you change the consequences.
Sen. John McCain is being excoriated and ridiculed by many who supported him for drawing a cordon sanitaire around Obama's double-decade association with the Rev. Jeremiah Wright. Off-limits. A "hold-your-fire" zone in an otherwise bitter campaign. Why that suicidal decision?
McCain doesn't have a racist corpuscle in his entire bloodstream, and even if he did, he's smart enough to know there's nothing racist about pointing out an opponent's apparent comfort with a preacher who amends the wording of "God Bless America" to plead for its opposite. And that goes regardless of the race of the opponent or that of the preacher.
Sen. McCain nonetheless chose to eliminate any possibility that race could be perceived as a player in his campaign.
For hundreds of years, undeserved punishment was thrust upon our black Americans just because of their color. Lately, however, well-deserved punishment has been withheld from black Americans; again, just because of their color. As one who grew up in the South I don't mind cutting African-Americans some slack because of their treatment in ages past, even though I deserve to be separated from the indictment. How can I be asked to atone for slavery when I never owned a slave? While blacks were slaves in America, my ancestors in Russia were slaves of the czar.
Probably the best one-word answer a public figure ever gave to a reporter was the old icon of American labor Samuel Gompers. When asked, "What does labor really want?" Gompers replied briefly and bluntly, "More!" Charming back then. Much less charming when that becomes the implied answer of the Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons when asked, "What do African-Americans really want?" If my voice seems brackish, hawkish and abrasive on this, it may be because you've never heard it before. I speak as a white Southerner who militated against racial injustice not just before it was fashionable but before it was safe. I and the millions like me don't need a Nobel Prize or fawning coverage by the liberal media or hugs or kisses from the Hollywood crowd.
I just want you to meditate for a moment upon how far Martin Luther King and his allies would have gotten without us. We young idealistic white Southerners sick of segregation and all the disgusting "keep-the-black-back" tricks and tactics of our Neanderthal authorities made the civil rights movement possible. We provided the climate that permitted success. Time, Newsweek, the networks and the others may not have had a clue, but the real civil rights leaders heard and heeded our signal: "The new South is ready!"
A year before Brown v. Board of Education, the University of North Carolina became the first Southern state university to admit black students to the graduate school without a court order. The university, not through hate, but through fear, quietly lifted the four blacks' student passbooks meaning they could not sit in the student section in Kenan Stadium during home football games.
The administration feared the combination of football and whiskey and white fraternity boys with their dates from near and far mixing with blacks in the bleachers might be too combustible. We, the native youth, rose up and battered the university administration into handing the new black students their passbooks back.
Our battle cry was, "There shall be no second-class students!" We won. The administration relented. This was 1952, folks. Can you understand why we're tired of hearing "America is a racist country?"
The mushrooming number of black mayors, congressmen, governors, ambassadors, generals, CEOs, big-deal football coaches — you name it — blunts the surprise but fills out the satisfaction of an Obama election to the presidency. As a North Carolinian, I've had this feeling before.
In 1990 I basked and marveled as almost every single friend I grew up with went out hustling money and votes for Charlotte's Democratic Mayor Harvey Gantt; an African-American. I would have voted for his opponent, the late Sen. Jesse Helms. That's not "cognitive dissonance;" two conflicting notions inhabiting the same brain at the same time. To me that's as normal as grits automatically coming with the eggs and sausage.
I did all I could to help John McCain. But that doesn't keep me from feeling a volcanic pride at being part of a nation that could elect a Barack Obama. If science wants to study me, here I am. I prove Obama can scare the hell out of you without interfering with your pride that your beloved countrymen overruled you and elected him.
If old Satchmo could get an exit visa from Heaven for a short visit back here on earth tomorrow would he change his battle cry of "White folks still in the lead!" or what?
I think he'd just flash us that smile and pick up that trumpet and blow us all a big high note.
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