How do you answer that question?
Have been thinking a lot about it since the explosion of stories about the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at his home in Cambridge on July 16.
So, here's my personal data.
I grew up in Massachusetts, spent my early years in politics there, a volatile combination for developing an acute sense of ethnic, racial, and tribal identities.
My hometown, Brookline, was roughly half Jewish, a quarter Catholic (overwhelmingly Irish, some Italian), and a quarter White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (aka WASPS). I can remember well as a very young child driving with my parents in the town at night during the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas and noticing "who was" and "who wasn't" by whether there was a lighted Christmas tree in the living room window. I can remember sitting with my father watching football games on tv and, as players were, being introduced asking each other whether this one or that one "might be Jewish."
I never knew a black person, except for Tom, who used to come once a week to clean our apartment (until my parents discovered that he had been raiding the liquor cabinet) and the janitor of the apartment building next door.
I went to Williams College where there were two blacks in my class, both much wealthier than me, and a dozen Jews out of a class of 250. (Surprise, surprise, two of the other 11 were assigned as my roommates.) On my first night at college, we had a party in our entry and in my beer-induced haze a I remember a fellow freshman from up state New York sitting down next to me and asking, "Are you really Jewish? The only Jew I hve ever met was a Canadian who came down to our town, opened a discount store and drove all the other stores out of business?" "Oh, that's intersting, I said."
In law school in the 1960s I decided not to spend my summer registering black voters in the South after my law school dean saw my name on the sign-up sheet and called me into his office to tell me that "it would be bad for my career."
In Brookline, after law school, I served as a tester, trying to rent apartments which had been refused to blacks to see if they had been turned down because of race. A close friend and I started a local foundation to provide initial loans and subsidies to assist blacks moving into town.
I voted for all the civil rights legislation that came before me when I was in the legislature and before that was a key staff person in the drafting of the so-called racial imbalance law which led to forced integration of the Boston schools by busing.
I took those racsim tests online, the one that came out of Project Implicit at Harvard and another by The Institute for Interracial Harmony. The former said I had a "moderate" preference for European Americans over African Americans and the latter, a much more straightforward almost self-assessment, said I was a wonderful person who loved everyone.
I have been accused in my classrooms of being sexist. And when I worked for Governor Bill Weld and fired an underperforming employee, I was accused by her and her supporters of being racist.
I am as racially and ethnically conscious a person as anyopne I know.
Am I a racist?