Friday, October 31, 2008

Change I Can Believe In

I was at the Detroit airport two Sundays ago, having a sandwich and a beer during a layover. Who knows why, but this bar & grill had its TV tuned, not to NFL football, but to a pro-am charity bowling event in which NBA basketball stars were paired up with pro bowlers. I think Dwyane Wade sponsored this thing; it was like the old Bob Hope celebrity golf tournaments, translated from the links to the hardwood lanes.

They would alternate: a tall loose-limbed African-American would roll, then a slightly older, stockier white man with a bad haircut. The white men were the pros, and each one typified the anti-style of championship bowling: the stoic expression, the custom-fit leather wrist brace, the practiced and precise delivery. The basketball guys were the amateurs and interlopers, I suppose, though with the twist that they (D-Wade, Lebron, Chris Paul) have a lot greater wealth and celebrity than the bowlers. They engaged in some good natured trash-talking, laughed at the bad balls, whooped at the good balls; they generally acted as if they were playing pick-up hoops at some nameless playground with no video cameras present.

I watched for just a short time but got caught up in it. Obviously I didn’t keep score (my hands were full with my pulled-pork sandwich), but it was remarkable to me how well the NBA players bowled. Kevin Durant, 6-foot-9 and skinny, would casually scoop up a bowling ball and sling it, seemingly without aiming, and likely as not get a strike. Most remarkably, the white guys awkwardly but gamely joined in the NBA-style fun. They pumped their arms, let out a yell, gave fist bumps to their NBA partners after a successful roll.

Maybe I’m being foolish or condescending—I don’t watch the Pro Bowlers Tour regularly, so for all I know giving high-fives and doing a dance to celebrate picking up a 7-10 split is normal behavior. It just seemed incumbent on the white guys to adapt themselves to the style of the black guys. In the context of sideline celebrations at a sporting event, a racially loaded context in my experience, I found that heartening. Anyway, black and white, pro and amateur all seemed to enjoy themselves and enjoy one another. And I’ve never enjoyed watching bowling so much.


This past weekend I went with my wife to her 25-year high school reunion. It was low-key and actually quite a bit of fun. This is a small rural high school in eastern North Carolina; the class of ’83 numbered about 70 people, about half of whom showed up for this reunion, bringing significant others as appropriate.

Several people at the party reflected on something one of their teachers said at the time of their graduation: that the class of ’83 was remarkable for its spirit of friendship and respect across racial lines. And I believe it. I had met a couple of these people before, but don’t know them well, and basically experienced the gathering as an interesting slice of life, sort of an ethnographic case study.

Some people had settled in the area, marrying their high school sweethearts, going into the family business in some cases. Some had settled far away. Some had moved away then come back, perhaps to care for ailing family members. (There was not a lot of nostalgia for the town itself, some blunt confessions of how happy folks were to graduate and move away.) Some are making good money, some are just getting by. Some are professionals, some are blue-collar. And there are whites and African-Americans sorted across all these divides.

I can’t say there was no racial tension. At dinner, there tended to be tables of black folks and tables of white folks. I didn’t see any interracial couples. But there was a lot of conversation and affection and teasing across racial lines, a lot of testimony of cross-racial teenage crushes. One African-American member of the Class of ’83 has served as mayor of this community, the first black mayor of the town. Maybe the most “successful” alumnus, who had traveled from his home in the Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia to attend, is African-American. He would seem to have "come the longest way" from childhood to adulthood. But he had some grateful words about the small-town values he’d been raised with, the work ethic and civic responsibility instilled in him.

I guess I partly just want to testify: I was in a group of rural Southern red-state Joe Sixpacks who are not flat-out racists. We didn’t take a poll, but I’d guess many of the whites will vote for McCain. Lord knows, Southern whites are prone to talk about blacks a lot differently in their own living rooms than out in public. They’re not idiots, however, they are the 40-something products of integrated schools and integrated workplaces, and they won’t panic at the prospect of a President of a different race. It’s a mobile society we live in, insecure and uncertain, but fluid and increasingly global. Small-town people can be open and knowledgeable about the world. Race and class and locale are obstacles, but not insurmountable ones.


I saw a poll the other day that indicated that 44% of white voters support Barack Obama. They don’t all love him, they are not free from prejudice toward him. But reporters are relaying quotes like, “We’re voting for the colored boy; we’re voting for the Muslim.” (“Colored boy” actually is a cleaned-up version of a term I heard quoted.)

This is a point where a pessimist will bring up the dreaded Bradley Effect; 44 is a baseline against which to measure that effect. But 44% is better than John Kerry or Al Gore did among white voters.