My 9-year-old son's best friend is black. This should hardly be worth writing a column about, let alone require an explanation. Unfortunately, however, it does demand such attention. Given the numbers of blacks and whites in the American population, such friendships are not nearly as common as they ought to be.
Observing these two boys' friendship, and wanting such inter-racial friendships to become far more common, I have come to a number of conclusions.
First, you can't make friends among members of groups that you don't meet. For whatever reasons, many black Americans have been choosing segregation. You can see it at lunch tables in many schools, in the separate black graduation ceremonies and dorms at colleges, in the proliferating number of race-based professional organizations, and in choosing to live in racially segregated neighborhoods.
As one who subscribes to the liberalism of President John F. Kennedy (and who by continuing to do so is now considered a conservative), I still believe in the racial ideal I was raised with -- integration. Today, the word sounds downright archaic. The term "integration" isn't even used among America's intellectual elites or "civil rights leaders." They abandoned it for "diversity," "racial identity" and "multiculturalism."
Second, it is most relevant that my son is a religious Jew and that his friend is a religious Christian. Though they don't really know it, their friendship has been rendered much more likely because of this, even more than because of their mutual love of swimming, tortoises and video games.
From the first time I met Steven, I suspected he was being raised with a religious identity. There are usually pretty big consequences to being raised in a family that attends church or synagogue every week. I saw them in Steven well before his mother ever told me of her family's Christian beliefs.
One consequence is that his primary identities are Steven, American and Christian. This is not often the case in contemporary African-American life, where racial identity often trumps one's individual human, religious or American identity.
But if your identity is primarily race-based, how can anyone of another race enter your life in any intimate way?
Steven is a wonderful boy who happens to be black. My son is a wonderful boy who happens to be white. Race is a non-issue to them, as it always should be among good people. For both boys, their religious identity is more important than their racial identity.
Because Steven and my son are both religious, they have, often unwittingly to be sure, many values in common. When we explain to Aaron that Steven cannot play on Sunday mornings because he is at church, Aaron entirely understands; he was at synagogue the day before and couldn't play with Steven at that time. Both boys know the importance of watching their language, making blessings before eating, and much more.
Steven and his little brother usually join my family at our Friday night Sabbath dinner, and almost always wear a yarmulke at the table. In fact, Steven expresses more interest in the religious rituals than the average secular Jewish guest -- once again illustrating that values, especially transcendent ones, are far more humanly unifying than race or ethnicity. Any member of my family is more likely to bond with an African-American Christian than with an irreligious Jew.
It is difficult to overstate my pleasure at seeing these two boys becoming close friends. All credit must go to Steven's mother. She has chosen to live among non-blacks and to raise a son with Christian, human and American identities that are at least as strong as his African-American identity (which, for the record, she hardly ignores -- Steven speaks fluent French in order to keep alive the language of his Haitian grandparents).
At our Sabbath table I see the real American dream unfold, and only wish more Americans of all colors and ethnicities would share this dream.
Why is my son's best friend black? Because they share values that transcend race, and because they live near each other. It's as simple -- and as complex -- as that.