A dozen years ago maybe, I stood just outside a huge slum in Brazil with a couple of high school kids, Brazilian high school kids, who were talking about prejudice as they saw it in their worlds. They were brother and sister, and they were, I suppose I should say, "mixed race." Brazil has so many shades of racial identity that "mixed race" doesn't mean what it used to in this country, of course. Their mom was white, a missionary's daughter; their father was native Brazilian.
We were talking about race, especially the way in which I'd been perceiving Brazil as light years ahead of the U.S. when it comes to negotiating the difficult thickets of race and racial prejudice. Brazilians--or so it seemed to me--were every last color of the rainbow.
"You know, she'll have it tougher than I will," the boy said, nodding toward his sister. He was older, as I remember, maybe 17 to her 16.
I had no idea what he was talking about. "I don't get it," I told him, them.
"My sister's more dark-skinned," he told me. "Look."
From my point of view, it was very difficult to determine a difference, and I found it uncomfortable to be pushed to look, but he was right--there was a color difference, however slight. "You're kidding," I said. "I never noticed that."
They told me that it might seem to me as if there were no racial prejudice in Brazil, but they insisted that, even in colorful, multi-cultural Brazil, people made color a big deal.
It seemed to me then--and now--that some kind of prejudice is almost inescapable, for any of us, for all of us. There are no Jim Crow water fountain signs around here that I know of, but that doesn't mean that people this far north don't still draw lines visually--or that those lines aren't rooted in attitudes, stereotypes, caricature. Me too.
And that's at least partially why I think former President Jimmy Carter is right about the hate that's grown up around Barack Obama, why some people who believe him a Muslim are convinced that his birth in Hawaii was somehow fraudulently recorded--that he isn't, after all, one of us. Racism exists.
But unless you're hanging Jim Crow signs outside public restrooms or keeping Native American kids from the pool, unless the evidence is tangible enough to be lugged into court, no one wins when someone red, black, yellow, or white accuses someone else of racism. It's an incendiary charge that's impossible to prove.
All it does, finally, is create a more problems, making us more, not less, conscious of color and facial features. Carter may be right, but I'm not sure it does a dime's worth of good to say it--and I wish he hadn't.