Small White City

Growing up in the United States after World War II, one could not escape the effects of systemic racism – no matter how liberal and well-intentioned a White person might be.

I’m a Baby Boomer, born in 1946 in Los Angeles, California. My parents met and married during World War II while my father was serving in the U.S. Army. Soon after I was born, we moved to Culver City, a separate political jurisdiction on the west side of the Los Angeles area. Using a GI loan, with $500 down they could afford to buy a lot and build a modest single-family home for $10,000. Neither of my parents came from a wealthy family, but both had graduated from college.

The author as a member of the Culver City Cardinals Little League baseball team, 1958.

With a population of almost 20,000, Culver City was a town of working- and middle-class families. Founded by developer Harry Culver in 1913, it was one of many separate cities that grew up adjacent to or surrounded by the city of Los Angeles – Santa Monica on the coast and Beverly Hills along Wilshire Boulevard being other examples. Culver marketed the town as a “small White city” with lots restricted to people of European descent. A number of techniques, some legal and others not, allowed Culver City and other cities in California to prevent Black families from purchasing or renting homes. Among them was a restrictive covenant in the property deed which stated “that said premises shall not, nor shall any part thereof, ever be conveyed, transferred, leased or demised to any person other than of the White or Caucasian race.” Although the U.S. Supreme Court prohibited the enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in Shelley v. Kraemer in 1948, they continued to be included in deeds into the 1970s; other mechanisms including zoning laws and banking practices have kept Black families out of White neighbourhoods to this day.

On my block, our neighbours included a German immigrant family in which the father was a gardener, a Mexican-American family in which the father repaired pinball machines and a native Hawaiian family in which the father was a principal at the junior high school. Next door to us was a White-Filipino couple in which the husband drove a delivery truck for the Helms Bakery, a major employer in town, and across the street lived a policeman’s family and a unionized machinist who worked at Hughes Aircraft. A few blocks away stood MGM, one of the leading film studios of the golden era of Hollywood, as well as RKO studios and other film-related companies.

There was only one Black family living in Culver City during my youth. The Culver City police force helped to enforce the Whites-only social norm by making it clear to Blacks working in the city or passing through that they were expected to depart by sunset. Real estate brokers would not show houses or rental properties to Black families.

If asked, most residents would have said that Blacks chose to live together – that it was de facto segregation based on free choice and social practice, not de jure segregation supported by government compounded by racial bias. This was a myth. As historian Richard Rothstein has written, “Racial segregation in housing was not merely a project of southerners in the former slaveholding Confederacy. It was a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century, designed and implemented by its most liberal leaders … Scores of racially explicit laws, regulations, and government practices combined to create a nationwide system of urban ghettos, surrounded by white suburbs.”1 Segregation in housing which resulted in segregation in schooling and in jobs was the policy of government in all regions of the country. It was systemic – and has had ruinous consequences to this day.

The son of the only Black family in Culver City was a year ahead of me in school. He had a rock band which played at school dances. He was popular but none of us knew his parents or how they had managed to find a home in the city. I later heard an unconfirmed story that a White teacher rented a home for them in his name.

The only Black person whom I knew well growing up was Mamie Rice, an elderly woman who came to live with us in the early 1950s after my younger twin brother and sister were born. My parents were both working journalists and needed help with child care. They had known Mamie through family friends on the east coast. Mamie shared a room with my sister, and my brother moved in with me. In addition to watching the twins, Mamie cooked our meals and ruled the kitchen. I felt that she was a member of the family, but she wouldn’t eat with us at the dining room table, saying it would make her uncomfortable.

Because Jackie Robinson had integrated major league baseball as a member of the Brooklyn Dodgers, that was Mamie’s team. On weekends and summer evenings, we would watch the Dodgers together on a TV in her room. I shared her interest in other Black Dodger players like catcher Roy Campanella and star pitcher Don Newcombe. When the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958, I was overjoyed.

The author as a member of the Culver City Cardinals Little League baseball team, 1958.

While I watched Black athletes play baseball or football (the Los Angeles Rams had been one of the first NFL teams to hire Black players), I had no Black teammates on my sports teams. My Little League baseball team included Latino players – our coach one year was Latino – and the sons of European immigrants. At Culver City High School where I played varsity basketball, there were no Black players on the team since the only Black student in school played in a band. As best I can recall, there was not a single Black basketball player in the Pioneer League, which included high school teams from Beverly Hills and a number of White working-class cities along the Southern California coast. Once a season, we would play a non-league game against a team from a Black-majority city like Compton and lose badly.

Most of our teachers at Culver City High were decent White liberals. One English teacher introduced us to Huckleberry Finn, Mark Twain’s great antislavery novel, reading it aloud in class. It became one of my favourite books. Friends and I went to a small theatre in Hollywood to see A Raisin in the Sun by Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry, about the life of a Black family in Chicago’s segregated South Side.

As working journalists for national publications, my parents weren’t political activists, but it was clear that they were liberals and voted Democratic. We watched the 1960 Democratic convention in Los Angeles nominate John F. Kennedy. During the campaign, urged by aides, Kennedy placed a call to Coretta King while her husband Martin Luther King was in jail for leading a protest march. Jackie Robinson had initially supported Vice President Richard Nixon in the 1960 race: having personally experienced racism in the solid Democratic south he had, like many other Black Americans, supported the Republican Party as the party of Lincoln. He asked Nixon to call Mrs. King and speak out about Dr. King’s jailing; when Nixon refused his request, Robinson switched his allegiance to JFK.

As president, pressured by the growing civil rights movement, Kennedy appealed for Black voter support, promising to bring in a voting rights bill. This represented a historic change in the Democratic Party’s stance – even Franklin D. Roosevelt had largely excluded Blacks from most New Deal programs in the 1930s because he needed southern Democrats’ votes to govern. After Kennedy’s assassination and Lyndon B. Johnson’s landslide victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964, LBJ’s fulfilment of the pledge with the 1965 Voting Rights Act would lead the Republican Party to shift its strategy toward the south.

Civil rights leaders meet with President Kennedy in the Oval Office, 1963. GPA Photo Archive / Warrem K. Leffler, US News & World Report Magazine Collection, Library of Congress.

As a family, we watched the 1963 civil rights march on Washington at which Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech and the moving funeral of civil rights workers Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney who were abducted and murdered in Mississippi in the summer of 1964.

It was, however, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis that initially fuelled my own activism. During the height of the crisis we gathered in the quad at our high school, refusing to attend class. (Male students tried to persuade the girls that the end of the world was at hand, so they should experience sex before it was too late.) We skipped school to watch the opening of the classic antiwar film Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. In my final year of high school, I decided to apply to a special program for advanced students at UCLA which taught Russian. I wanted to become a diplomat who could make peace with Russia and prevent a nuclear holocaust.

Yale: A strange diversity

My grades and athletic accomplishments at Culver High led to acceptance at several elite schools. I chose Yale because of its system of residential colleges modelled after Oxford and Cambridge. Yale was changing in the 1960s. Our class that came to New Haven in the fall of 1964 was the first to have as many graduates of public schools as of private eastern prep schools. It also had a record number of Californians – a fact which my classmate George W. Bush praised as a sign of diversity. However, there were only 14 Black students in the class out of a thousand male students (Yale did not admit women). At least a third of the Black students were African or Caribbean, sons of diplomats or elite parents.

I was assigned to Calhoun College, built in 1933 and named after Yale graduate John C. Calhoun, an early-19th-century vice president, secretary of state and senator who had owned slaves while a student at Yale. The naming of the college was part of the revival of the myth that support for the Confederacy had been a noble cause and that the Civil War was about states’ rights, not slavery. Many of the statues, buildings and military bases named after Confederate generals and politicians that have drawn protests by the Black Lives Matter movement were erected in the 1920s and 1930s. The 1939 Hollywood blockbuster Gone with the Wind spread this myth of the  past into popular culture.

C. Vann Woodward, a Southern-born historian at Yale, gave a set of lectures at the University of Virginia in 1954 which he published under the title The Strange Career of Jim Crow.2 He documented how Blacks and Whites had begun to work together in the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, but political compromises at the federal level returned power to the southern planter class. Starting in the 1880s a series of so-called Jim Crow laws were passed across the south, segregating the races – denying voting rights, allowing lynching of Blacks to go unpunished and creating the harsh reality of separate and unequal.

It was the Jim Crow form of racial apartheid that the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King would struggle against in the 1950s and 1960s. In 1965, Woodward saw televised images of civil rights marchers being beaten by state troopers as they headed out of Selma, Alabama, on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, aiming to reach the State Capitol in Montgomery. He flew to Montgomery to meet the marchers when they finally arrived at the Capitol, and was surprised to hear Martin Luther King, in his memorable speech, explain the origins of Jim Crow by citing his work. King called The Strange Career of Jim Crow “the historical bible of the civil rights movement.”

In response to Jim Crow, millions of Blacks would leave the south in what historians call the Great Migration, chronicled in Isabel Wilkerson’s Pulitzer Prize–winning book The Warmth of Other Suns.3

I hated the fact that my college was named after a slaveowner and a traitor to the Union, but I’m sure that it did not rankle me the way it did Black students. Two of my classmates, leaders of the Black Student Alliance at Yale (BSAY), recalled their feelings in an essay for our 25th reunion class book:

But even today, we still gag at the memory of our shock , anger, and then outrage, when summoned in 1965 to the Calhoun College Lounge, at discovering Confederate battle flags, proudly mounted above the fireplace, and accompanied by two very large bull whips – crossing each other, we assumed in honor of their many uses. To some this may seem a harmless reminder of Calhoun’s era. But to the descendants of former slaves, whips resembled instruments employed in the 1960s by the KKK to terrorize and intimidate Blacks demanding equality. Symbols send many messages. And for those of us committed to movements for social justice, the display in Calhoun College formed a brutal symbolic reminder of a time at Yale when people like ourselves were unwelcome as anything other than servants.

While Calhoun’s name was not removed from the residential college until 2017, the BSAY did win incremental victories. Because of its efforts, Yale became the first college to establish a degree-granting Black Studies program. By 1968, the number of Black students at Yale had increased to 100.

I focused my freshman studies on intensive Russian. In the summer of 1965, I went on a study trip to the Soviet Union organized by the University of Michigan and funded by the Defense Education Act – a Cold War effort to develop Russian expertise. I remember standing outside in Moscow looking up at the electronic news bulletin that ran across the side of the Izvestia newspaper building and seeing a word that appeared to be Vatts. It took me a few moments to realize that the word was Watts, a Black neighbourhood in south central Los Angeles which had erupted in an urban rebellion following a routine traffic stop of a Black driver. The confrontation with police and National Guard lasted six days with 34 deaths, thousands of injuries and the destruction of over a thousand buildings. It was a wakeup call that the economic and geographic consequences of systemic racism had gone unattended for generations, and adopting a voting rights bill was not enough.


Burning buildings during Watts riots, 1963. Library of Congress/New York World-Telegram Via Wikimedia Commons.

In the immediate years following Watts there would be urban uprisings in Chicago, Detroit, Newark and more than a hundred other cities, all resulting in deaths primarily of poor Blacks and causing economic destruction of Black neighbourhoods. In 1968, the President’s Commission on Civil Disorders, appointed by LBJ, would conclude that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and unequal.” The commission’s recommendations for desegregation programs and major investment in inner cities would be ignored.

In the summer of 1966, after my second year at Yale, I worked as a researcher in Washington, D.C., for investigative journalist Jack Anderson, assisting with a book he was co-authoring with his partner Drew Pearson called The Case Against Congress. One of my assignments was to draft the section on South Carolina Congressman John McMillan, chair of the House District Committee which oversaw most aspects of life for the residents of the District of Columbia. The head of the House District Committee of the Congress was, in effect, the mayor of the capital, the nation’s first Black-majority city.

After reviewing the clip file in Anderson’s office, I rented a car to drive to McMillan’s district for interviews. Crossing from Virginia into North Carolina, I was startled to see a large billboard alongside the highway proclaiming “Welcome to North Carolina – the Heart of Klan Country.” It was my first trip to the Deep South. Mullins, South Carolina, was a pleasant town dependent on tobacco farming. People to whom I spoke were friendly and polite until I asked directions for an address on the “wrong side of the tracks” belonging to Congressman McMillan’s Black driver. As I crossed the tracks, the streets quickly went from paved to unpaved and the housing stock from sturdy homes with watered lawns to wood shanties on dusty lots.

Although the District of Columbia eventually got an elected municipal government, a nonvoting member of Congress and three electoral votes (the same as the least populated state), Congress can still overturn D.C. laws and expenditures. Republicans oppose statehood for D.C. because it would result in the addition of two Black members to the Senate. Earlier this year, Republican Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas made a speech opposing statehood for D.C., comparing its residents unfavourably with the people of Wyoming who, while fewer in number, are more deserving than residents of the District. He called Wyoming “a well-rounded working-class state,” but neglected to mention that it is almost entirely White.

Race played a role in the Cold War. The Russians used America’s racial segregation as propaganda in their effort to win hearts and minds in newly independent countries in Africa and Asia. The U.S. State Department responded by sending Black jazz musicians to play in Eastern Europe and Africa. Indeed, challenging this narrative on race was one reason Kennedy and Johnson had become reluctant champions of civil rights.

The head of my residential college, a pastor and professor of religion, had moved to Stanford, where my sister was enrolled, to become chaplain of the university. In 1967, Secretary of State Dean Rusk’s only daughter Peggy, a Stanford undergraduate, asked him to conduct her wedding to a Black employee of NASA named Guy Smith. Rusk told the chaplain that he could not give away his daughter to a Black man because of the feelings of his Georgia relatives. The chaplain called my father who printed the story in his column in Parade, a Sunday magazine with a readership in the millions. Rusk called the publisher to complain, trying to get my father fired. This was just a few months after the Supreme Court had overturned Virginia’s anti-miscegenation law, making interracial marriage legal nationwide.

Reagan at Yale
California Governor Ronald Reagan visits Yale, 1967. Wikimedia CC 4.0

In the fall of 1967, my final year at Yale, California Governor Ronald Reagan came to campus as a visiting fellow, invited by conservative faculty. As a student leader and member of the senior honour society, I was invited to a discussion over lunch with Reagan at which a Black student friend asked him why he had refused to support the Voting Rights Act of 1965. He replied that it was a matter of states’ rights – a trope that he would later use when he ran for president. During his campus stay, Reagan mentioned more than once that, as a young sportscaster, he had supported Jackie Robinson’s right to play baseball, and that the Black actor Sammy Davis Jr. was a personal friend. It was my first taste of how Republican politicians put a smiling face on systemic racism.

Another glaring example of racism was the Vietnam War. Framed as part of the Cold War, the war effort relied on working-class Americans, particularly poor Blacks and Latinos, and the Vietnamese were dehumanized as “commie gooks.” World heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali famously made the connection explicit when he announced that he would refuse to be drafted to fight, saying, ”I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong.” Why should he go to Asia to fight against a people who had done him no harm while people in his own country had been lynching Black Americans? (This theme is explored in Spike Lee’s recent film Da Bloods).

Opposing the Vietnam War was the focal point of my political activism in college. I organized teach-ins, signed letters against the war with other student leaders, and met with Yale graduates in the Johnson Administration to explain our opposition. I was thrilled when Martin Luther King began publicly to criticize the war – a stance which lost him the support of some Democratic allies and angered President Johnson. King made the same connection as Ali had made: it was time for justice at home, not war abroad. On April 4, 1968, King was assassinated, and again the nation’s cities erupted in protest and violence. In August, I attended the Democratic Convention in Chicago and watched as the Poor People’s March down Michigan Avenue led by civil rights leaders was set upon by Mayor Richard Daley’s police – the same police who attacked antiwar protestors in Grant Park with tear gas and clubs in front of the TV cameras.

The Republican nominee for President, Richard Nixon, focused on the urban demonstrations and the violence in Chicago in running a campaign based on law and order. Former (and future) Alabama Governor George Wallace ran an openly racist third-party campaign, winning five southern states. Seeing Wallace’s success with the law and order theme, Nixon adopted a strategy to win over White voters in the south to the Republican ticket, which became the Republican playbook. The party of Lincoln would become the party of White people, united by a fear of Blacks and other minorities.

Politics of race and class

After graduating in 1968, I worked as a journalist in Washington and Boston, then returned home to California where I briefly worked in state government during Jerry Brown’s first term as governor in the mid-1970s. Brown supported United Farm Workers leader César Chávez, passing a bill to legalize farm worker organizing, but he had little understanding of the state’s Black communities. In one cabinet meeting that I attended to discuss uses for a surplus military base, Brown suggested flippantly that we could open a multiracial summer camp for young men “where the White kids would teach the Blacks how to read and the Black kids would teach the Whites how to fight.”

I finished a degree in public policy and began teaching at Occidental College, an elite private liberal arts college in Los Angeles. At Occidental, I was lucky to work with the college’s president, John Slaughter, the first Black director of the National Science Foundation. Slaughter brought to the college a commitment to equity and excellence, arguing that recruiting a more diverse student body and faculty did not mean sacrificing academic standards. In addition to initiating a new program in public policy, I hosted visiting speakers and organized conferences, including a program on Race and Class in America.

As part of the series, Black sociologist William Julius Wilson gave a presentation on his path-breaking research on the effects of deindustrialization on the poor Black community of Chicago, arguing that class as well as race had to be considered in understanding the position of minorities in the United States. Journalist Anthony Lukas discussed the turmoil over school busing in Boston in a presentation based on his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Common Ground.4 Because of a misguided Supreme Court decision, court-ordered busing to desegregate schools – a result of segregated housing – pitted inner-city Black families against working-class White families. Lukas’s compelling narrative described the tragic ways that this situation played out in one American city. “Forced busing” provided the Republican Party with a political lever to win over White working-class votes outside the south. Black Harvard law professor Derrick Bell spoke about the civil rights movement since 1954 and the legal and social obstacles to attaining racial justice. Bell used storytelling – fictional chronicles rather than dry legal analysis – to examine why progress seemed stalled and how things might improve.

I have always been a liberal Democrat in political outlook. I did not think that the Black nationalism of the Black Panther Party or the Black separatism of the Nation of Islam would bring progress in race relations. I advocated a nonreformist reform approach to politics like FDR’s New Deal or that of the social democratic parties in Nordic countries – but with the inclusion of Americans of colour as partners in political coalition-building to win elections and enact change. I co-authored books on these ideas with economist Martin Carnoy5 and wrote numerous articles for journals and newspapers. I also tried to put my beliefs into practice through political involvement, first at the local and then at the national level.

In the1980s, living in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica, a coastal city of 90,000 surrounded by the city of Los Angeles, I helped to build a political coalition which won majority control. In a city composed mainly of renters, a basic issue is housing. We formed Santa Monicans for Renters’ Rights (SMRR) as a coalition of the local Democratic Club, housing and minority activists, trade unionists and environmental activists. In addition to enacting one of California’s first rent regulation laws, which included setting up an elected rent control board, we campaigned on a program of community-based policing – a model in which police are seen as guardians of citizens’ safety, not as armed warriors.

In winning the support of the police for our program, we were part of a reform movement which saw former police lieutenant Tom Bradley elected the first Black mayor of Los Angeles in 1973, supported by a coalition of White liberal, Jewish and minority voters. We worked closely with Bradley’s staff and built a strong relationship with Black Congresswoman Maxine Waters who represented the Watts district. Reagan jokingly referred to the Santa Monica government as Communist, but some of his supporters took the ironic expression “People’s Republic of Santa Monica” literally.

Growing up in Santa Monica, my eldest son had a few Black friends. One, who played on his Little League team, became a major league baseball player. Another was shot in a drug deal that went bad and was paralyzed from the waist down for life. I came to understand that problems of race and class can be addressed in one city, but they cannot be solved by local action alone.

Along with friends from the civil rights, antiwar, women’s liberation, gay rights and environmental movements, I became part of an effort to promote a national strategy of multiracial reform-based political coalitions operating as part of the Democratic Party at the state and national level. With the support of the United Auto Workers and other unions, we formed the Progressive Alliance to unite local and state political groups. We also established a national clearinghouse to host conferences where progressive local and state politicians – like Bernie Sanders, the Mayor of Burlington, Vermont; Paul Soglin, the Mayor of Madison, Wisconsin; Ken Cockerel, a Black city councillor from Detroit; Harold Washington, the first Black Mayor of Chicago; Jim Hightower, the progressive agricultural commissioner of Texas; Byron Dorgan, the populist state tax commissioner of North Dakota; and Bill Clinton, Attorney General of Arkansas – would discuss reform policies and politics.

In 1988, I served as an adviser to Senator Gary Hart before his campaign ended when the press caught him in an extramarital affair, and the Democrats chose Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts to run against Vice President George Bush. The Republicans played the race card, airing an emotionally powerful ad featuring Willie Horton, a convicted criminal released from prison on furlough who committed a brutal kidnapping and murder. It was this racially infused strategy that won the GOP five of six national elections between 1968 and 1988 by undermining the class basis of the Roosevelt Democratic coalition.

The author on the campaign trail with Bill Clinton, 1992.

In 1992, I was a senior adviser to Bill Clinton’s campaign for president. I had known Clinton since university days and admired his skills as a liberal politician who could get elected in Arkansas by supporting educational and economic reforms. I helped to write the campaign’s program and gave it the title Putting People First. Clinton chose as his running mate a fellow southern liberal, Tennessee Senator Al Gore. The campaign focus was “the economy, stupid,” as consultant James Carville put it. Clinton set out a program of economic reforms, including universal health care, that would appeal across class and racial lines.

In March 1991 police in Los Angeles had been caught on camera badly beating a Black man named Rodney King during an arrest. The police went on trial for use of excessive force. In April 1992, when a jury in the suburbs of Ventura County – nine White jurors, one Latino, one biracial and one Asian-American – voted to acquit them of all charges, LA’s Black community erupted in protest. Police responded and violence broke out across the city, resulting in 50 people killed, 2,000 injured, 6,000 arrested, and over a thousand buildings destroyed. Clinton was campaigning in New York, where a primary was to take place. I advised him to fly to LA immediately, which he did, meeting with Black leaders and local politicians, attending church gatherings and calling for an end to racial division.

As a southern politician Clinton had experience with the politics of race, and he wasn’t going to let the Republicans play the race-baiting card as they had with Dukakis. During the campaign, Clinton publicly criticized Black rap singer Sister Souljah for her anti-White lyrics. Jesse Jackson defended her, but Clinton held firm. Clinton also announced that as president he would “end welfare as we know it.” While this undermined the GOP strategy going back to Ronald Reagan of using welfare as a cudgel against Democrats, it also, to the disappointment of many of us, continued the scapegoating of welfare recipients.

Black former civil rights activist Vernon Jordan cochaired the Clinton transition team and became known as Clinton’s “First Friend.” Black author Maya Angelou delivered the Inaugural poem. Novelist Toni Morrison later pronounced Clinton, “white skin notwithstanding,” the “first black president” because he was comfortable with Black people. In the face of united Republican opposition in Congress, Clinton managed to a pass a budget that raised taxes on the wealthy and created the Earned Income Tax Credit which provided funds to low-wage working Americans. Clinton also tried to increase voter participation – a problem in poor and minority neighbourhoods – by passing Voter Motor legislation that allowed state departments of motor vehicles to register citizens when they got a driver’s licence. Republican refusal of all compromise and distorted media attacks derailed Clinton’s plans for universal health care.

When Newt Gingrich’s Republicans took over Congress in the 1994 midterm elections, Clinton tacked to the right on crime and welfare, trying to shield himself and the party from the Republicans’ racially slanted attacks. In August 1994, Clinton signed a massive $30 billion crime bill. The “get tough on crime” approach, supported by liberal Democrats including members of the House Black caucus, would lead to mass incarceration, mainly of Black men – what lawyer Michelle Alexander calls the New Jim Crow. In August 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, drafted by Republican Congressman John Kasich – known as the “welfare to work” bill. Three top officials of the Department of Health and Human Services including former civil rights activist Peter Edelman resigned to protest Clinton’s signing of the law, which condemned millions of women and children to poverty.

Ambassador Shearer with President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright at the 1997 Helsinki summit with Boris Yeltsin.

Because I had been singled out for attacks by the Wall Street Journal and other conservative media, I was kept out of Clinton’s economic team and was not given responsibility for carrying out the urban policy program I had prepared for the campaign. Instead, my interest in Russia and diplomacy led to my being named U.S. Ambassador to Finland. Helsinki, I learned, is the place where for many decades Cold War diplomacy with the USSR was conducted.

As Ambassador, I greeted and met Black entertainers when they came to perform. I received personal advice for President Clinton from the king of soul, James Brown, before his concert. I met with blues legend B.B. King, who told me that he’d never been invited to the White House. I let Clinton’s staff know and the next year King was honoured at the Kennedy Center. I presented an award to Tina Turner when she appeared for a sold-out concert at Helsinki’s Olympic stadium.

Ambassador Shearer welcomes Tina Turner to Helsinki before her concert at Olympic Stadium

My hardest task regarding race was to explain to the Finnish media the LA jury’s decision in the O.J. Simpson murder trial. I had met O.J. when he lived in West Los Angeles. A former football star, he was lionized as the Black man every White family would like to have next door. We would frequently see O.J. and his kids at the local market. My eldest son went to preschool with his son and once was invited to play basketball at O.J.’s home. When O.J. Simpson was acquitted by a jury of the murder of his White wife and her male friend, it was difficult for Finns to understand how jurors had voted. I explained that, for Black members of the jury, the testimony of the police was not considered trustworthy, especially that of the lead police detective who had a history of racist behaviour. Decades of police harassment and brutality against the Black population of LA could not but affect the views of most Black jurors.

Obama to Trump

I was a foreign policy adviser to Vice President Al Gore who won the popular vote against George W. Bush, my Yale classmate, but lost the 2000 election when Bush prevailed in the southern state of Florida by 537 votes. From 1888 to 1968, not a single Black person had been elected to the Florida legislature. The state constitution banned felons from voting for life, a measure that disenfranchised one of every five Black adults. This was part of the Republicans’ strategy of voter suppression as they found ways to prevent eligible voters from going to the polls. It is highly likely that Bush won the presidency by depriving many Black citizens of the franchise.

After Gore’s defeat, I returned to Occidental College, accepting a chair in diplomacy and teaching courses on Terrorism, American Foreign Policy and Diplomacy. Some years earlier Barry Obama, as he was known growing up, had come to Occidental from Hawaii. His Kenyan father and his White mother from Kansas had met as students at the University of Hawai’i. After Occidental, he went to Columbia University and Harvard Law School and, after serving in the Illinois legislature, was elected to the U.S. Senate. During the 2008 campaign and afterward, a “birthers” movement, in which Donald Trump became the most prominent figure, falsely claimed that Obama was not born in America. In the context of economic insecurity caused by the financial meltdown of that year, Obama ran as a candidate of unity and hope, not as a Black politician, although the colour of his skin could have been more of a factor had the Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, not been a decent man who refused to run a race-baiting campaign.

As president, Obama took decisive action to revive the American economy, saving the auto industry in the process, but he mainly governed from the centre. His major accomplishment was the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which expanded health coverage to millions of Americans. He recognized issues of racial discrimination and appointed Eric Holder as the nation’s first Black Attorney General. His head of Homeland Security, Jeh Johnson, was a Black lawyer. He appointed Susan Rice as Ambassador to the United Nations and later as his National Security Advisor. However, he tried to steer clear of embracing issues that would become central to the Black Lives Matter movement. On policing and discrimination, he appointed a commission – often a political excuse for inaction – which produced standards for community policing, but he did not make it a priority.

In June 2015, during the eulogy for Reverend Clementa Pickney, a South Carolina state senator who was one of nine Black Americans killed in a Charleston church by a 21-year-old White supremacist, Obama walked to the pulpit and sang the hymn “Amazing Grace.” It was one of the most powerful moments of his presidency. Obama’s administration asked localities receiving federal funds to identify patterns of racial discrimination and take meaningful action to provide desegregated housing options. President Trump would rescind the measure.

Obama’s election and two terms in office were hailed by many as the coming of a postracial America, but this was never true. Deep-seated, persistent racism did not disappear with his coming, something Donald Trump instinctively understood. In the second part of this article in Inroads next spring, I will look at how Trump played the race card, with attention to its effects during his presidency and the legacy it has left us.

Click to read Part 2 of this article Race and Politics in a Diverse Nation.


Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America (New York: Liveright, 2017).

2 New York: Oxford University Press, 1955.

3 Isabel Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (New York: Random House, 2010).

4 J. Anthony Lukas, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families (New York: Knopf, 1985).

5 Martin Carnoy and Derek Shearer, Economic Democracy: The Challenge of the 1980s (Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 1980); Martin Carnoy, Derek Shearer and Russell Rumberger, A New Social Contract: The Economy and Government after Reagan (New York: HarperCollins, 1983).