I recently participated in a CNN forum on racism, sexism, and ageism in American society. The discussion was obviously inspired by having the first-ever black nominee for president, the oldest ever presidential candidate, and only the second female nominee for vice president in American history.
Significant prejudices against all three groups still remain in America, but not the way you might expect. Today, we invite each group to be equal participants in American life so long as they conform to societal definitions of sophistication.
I do not believe, for example, that white Americans will, in any great number, refrain from voting for Barack Obama because he is black. Not because America is devoid of racism. It is not, although it has come a long way in purging itself of racial prejudice. Rather, it is because many white people see Barack Obama, with his unmatched eloquence and Ivy-League education, as possessing the sophistication of white society. But many of these same people who are jumping for joy with Obama's candidacy might easily pass over a resume they receive at work from an applicant with a first name like Deshawn, Shaneequa, or Jamal, as a June 2003 University of Chicago study found. This is an inversion of traditional racism, whereby blacks who do not 'look or sound black' are accepted into white society because they are essentially seen as white.
Obama's own running mate, Joe Biden, fell prey to this view, however unintentionally, when he famously said about Obama, ""I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Since modern forms of prejudice so often revolve more around economic and educational status, i.e., modern barometers of sophistication, Obama was seen as having graduated directly from Harvard and into white society.
We in the orthodox Jewish community understand this kind of prejudice all too well. Assimilated Jews often treat other Jews who look 'too Jewish' - say, with, Yarmulke, beard, and a large brood - as more primitive. Many of our secular Jewish brothers and sisters harbor a prejudice against Hasidic Jews whom they feel embarrass them with their primitive dress and primitive ways.
Likewise, the biases against women are changing as well. Women who, for example, are professionals yet have a large family are seen as less evolved than their more enlightened, less fertile counterparts. Even if it were true that Sarah Palin lacks the experience to be Commander-in-Chief, what does that have to do with so many critics savagely attacking for even daring to play on the national stage when she has so many kids at home to take care of? What are they trying to say? That she can't balance parenthood and profession? That can't be the explanation, because Barack Obama, who has two young children, has been campaigning for two years and no one has called him out on the conflict. And surely Dads have to help out with child-rearing as much as Moms.
Rather, Sarah Palin is being treated as a primitive country bumpkin who doesn't seem to know that it is impolite to have so many kids. Why, she is so backward that she even had a baby while serving as governor of Alaska. Geez, don't they have the pill in Alaska?
To be sure, we in the West are always lecturing the more 'backward' people of the East - especially Africa - that if only they discovered the pleasures of tiny families and stopped popping out so many kids, all their problems would be go away. Can't you backward people control your ovaries? Don't you know that contraception is society's highest barometer of progress? Educated women would never ruin their lives with too many kids. If you were really advanced, you'd understand that sex should be recreational as opposed to procreational.
I have several times in the past written of the unique prejudices that exist against families with 'too many' children and how, with nine children, I find myself apologizing for overpopulating the earth. Of course, we have now learned that precisely the opposite is true. The birth rate in the Western world is so low that countries like Japan, Germany, Russia, and France are slowly disappearing, as the New York Times Magazine reported in a cover story of June of this year.
But no doubt America's greatest prejudice of all is reserved for old people. Reread those words: old people. Makes you want to skip to another article, right? America is a country so obsessed with eternal youth that women will even shove a needle filled with toxic poison into their foreheads to numb their facial muscles, neutralize their ability to raise their eyebrows and show some personality, all in an effort to erase lines. America is a country that has such contempt for the elderly that most American women today over 35 would rather be waterboarded than ever confess their age. In the Bible, the elderly are celebrated as having acquired wisdom. They are supposed to be looked up to by the younger generation who lack their knowledge and experience. But not in America where they are seen as has-beens whose long lives are siphoning off way too much of our scarce social security funds.
A society that does not respect the elderly and does not love babies is a society that has seriously lost its moorings. Likewise, a society that does not fully embrace the contributions of each of its constituent parts is a society destined to become boringly monolithic.
The Bible's vision of society as an orchard, in which every community is rooted in its own traditions, its own soil, while still growing out into, and contributing its color, to the wider garden, has yet to be realized. But the fact that a black gentleman, and elderly gentleman, and a Mom of lots of kids are being considered for the nation's highest offices shows that the seeds of that garden have at least been planted.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach hosts a daily national radio show on Oprah and Friends. His most recent book is The Broken American Male.