While off for the holidays, I took my 90-year-old, former Marine, Republican dad to his inner-city barbershop. Dad goes to the same barbershop that my brothers and I went to when we were growing up. Different people now own the shop, and I hadn't set foot in there in probably 35 years. Is it still, I asked Dad, the same "afro-centric," white-man-done-me-wrong, trash-talking joint? "Yes," sighed my father, who taught my brothers and me to overcome racism through hard work and personal responsibility.
When we get there, it's packed. Two barbers, cutting hair, with about six or seven people waiting. But the walls no longer sport posters of an angry, finger-pointing Malcolm X, or Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the anti-Semitic Nation of Islam, or Marcus Garvey, who urged blacks to leave racist America and return to Africa. I remember them staring down at me as my barber ranted about how "the white man" oppresses us. But on this day, as my dad and I walk in, one of the barbers recognizes me.
Barber: Mr. Larry Elder, how you doin'?
Larry: This is my dad. (My taciturn dad never told him that the notorious Sage from South Central was his son.) How many ahead of him?
The barber offered to take my dad right away, cutting in front of others, but dad and I quickly refused. As we waited, one of the barbers and I began talking about what the barber called the "problem of racism." I argued that racism no longer posed a significant obstacle to black progress. What other country could produce a Colin Powell, a Condi Rice, an Oprah Winfrey, a Tiger Woods, a Barack Obama and a Snoop Dogg?
Larry: What about my dad? How did he manage? How do you compare what it's like now to what it was like then? He grew up in the Jim Crow South during the Depression, when black adult unemployment was 50 percent. He dropped out of school at age 13, after his mother threw him out of the house in favor of her then-boyfriend. Hard jobs followed, and he served in World War II. When he came out, he worked two full-time jobs as a janitor, cooked for a family on the weekends and went to night school to get his high school G.E.D. He saved his money and somehow managed to start a restaurant when he was in his 40s, which he ran until he was in his 80s. If racism didn't stop him then, how can racism stop you today? And he votes Republican!
Most of the customers, and the barbers, start laughing. But another customer could take it no longer.
Customer: But you have to admit, Elder, that the playing field is not level. White people have more money and more property than we do.