Does the World Believe America Has Really Changed On Race?

07/19/2012 07:08 am ET | Updated Sep 18, 2012

Recently, America celebrated its 236th birthday. But for the first time in decades, I was unable to be a part of any of the picnics, parades, or firework displays that signal to the world the country I love has turned one year older. I could only watch through an Internet stream on my laptop, six thousand of miles away from my native California.

I have to admit, I was pretty homesick. But being so far from home is good for the soul. It's allowed me to understand just how great our country truly is, blemishes and all. But it's also been an enlightening experience to see how we're viewed by those from other parts of this planet we call Earth.

It was May of 2011, when I made my decision to return to Germany, a land I hadn't seen since I was a young U. S. airman during the early 1980's. In the year since I've been back, I've been able to reconnect with old friends, as well as form wonderful and new relationships with others. A lot of people have been pretty curious about this guy from America. And when folks find out I'm from sunny California, I'm peppered with questions as they burst with envious curiosity.

Being African American, I also get another question asked, in one form or another.

"Has America really changed between black and white?"

"Of course America has changed," I reassure them. "Just not everything."

An expression of respectful disbelief immediately forms upon their faces.

I guess the fact we've elected the nation's first African American President hasn't convinced them. But why should it, considering the disrespectful manner in which the opposition party has treated him. In spite of the vigorous denials of some U. S. political pundits, the racial element is obvious. Even to the German people.

Then, the Trayvon Martin story broke and their inquisitiveness took on an entirely different tone.

"America hasn't really changed between black and white, has it?"

Let's ignore the fact that they'll never understand our gun culture. When a shooting happens here, it's a big f-ing deal. But when they learned an unarmed 17-year-old black kid was shot and the person who did it walked free without being charged because of a law, it blew their minds.

"That's a disgrace! How can this happen in a land like America?"

Sadly, this plays into the other images they see coming out of our country. I explain to them how much America has changed. I share with them how far we have come. I try to convince them it's not the same America of fifty years ago. Or even of twenty years ago, as memories of the LA Riots popped back in the news.

At the same time, I'm very honest with them. I explain how, as a black person in America, the rules are different.

I've shared with them how I've entered elevators where white women have clutched their purses tightly to their bodies, fearful I might steal from them.

I've explained that black folks aren't supposed to run out of stores. For many, it's an instant sign a crime has been committed, even when one hasn't been reported.

I've told them how I was "trained" to keep my hands in the air while being stopped by police. Then, I'd instruct the officers to "tell me what you want me to do next." That "training" came from my mom. She just wanted to make sure I made it home alive every day.

"How could you live like that?" I've been asked.

"I'd be afraid every time my son left the house," a German mother said to me.

But I also share with them many folks of different races who do find ways to get along. I've explained it was a white reading development teacher who took me, a black inner city kid with a reading problem, and molded him into a young writer.

Naturally, I'm greeted with a look of pure skepticism.

Unfortunately, the ideas of the greatness of America and its dark side are just too difficult to coexist in their minds. They just can't see how our country has changed. They don't have the same vantage point as I had. They only have the images we beam to the world through our media and the Internet. And whether we like it or not, the world is watching very closely.

The approaching Presidential election promises to be one of the nastiest and dirtiest campaigns of our 236-year history. And race will most definitely play a prominent role. Sadly, it's unavoidable. Race is that ever-present ghost that haunts America, even through our politics.

Recently, a major Mitt Romney supporter published an op-ed piece in The Washington Times stating he was "beginning to wonder if it would have been best had the South won the Civil War." Of course, this was after he had already "allegedly" threatened violence against President Obama. And true to form, Mitt Romney was virtually silent. He's so worried about keeping his tax returns secret, he's not going to cause himself more problems by insulting a very powerful part of his voting base: the right-wing, gun-toting, bigoted, faux-Christian branch of the Republican Party who absolutely cannot stand seeing that "Kenyan socialist" occupying the White House.

So, I'm bracing myself for the worst. And make no mistake about it, it will represent the absolute worst of America. What makes the world take even more notice is when we continuously preach to them about keeping their houses clean, while we choose to ignore the nice pile of dirt sitting in the middle of our own.

And when the political fireworks start, I'm sure this question will be posed to me once again.

"America hasn't really changed between black and white, has it?"

I wonder what expression I'll be wearing the next time I answer.

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