Separate and Unequal

One Drop of Blood: The American Misadventure of Race

by Scott L. Malcomson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 584 pp., $30.00


When he was eleven years old Scott Malcomson placed third in a citywide spelling bee in Oakland, California, home, as he reminds us, of both the Black Panthers and the Gray Panthers. At the awards ceremony after the spelling bee Marcus Foster, the black superintendent of Oakland’s schools, made what Mr. Malcomson remembers as a warm and moving speech. About a year later—in November 1973—Marcus Foster was murdered by the Symbionese Liberation Army, kidnappers of Patty Hearst and surely one of the more improbable of the various quasi-revolutionary groups operating in those fevered times.

Mr. Malcomson, who is white, tells us that in dreams he has relived the murder of Marcus Foster many times. He himself, at the time, was hanging out with Asian-American—or, as he calls them elsewhere, quasi-Chinese—friends, listening to black music. His father, Mr. Malcomson tells us,

was a Baptist minister who claims to this day that he learned all he knows about preaching the Word from black ministers. Dad worked an old church downtown—a white, liberal, middle-class church in a black and Hispanic neighborhood. Sometimes the family would go to hear him guest-preach in at black churches, where he seemed especially happy since the congregation actually listened to his sermons (as opposed to appreciating them). The family and I enjoyed these trips. We were able to sing in full voices with-out overwhelming the worshippers next to us in the pew.

Oakland, California, then and now, is a complex, racially intense community. Scott Malcomson’s quasi-Chinese friends taught him Asian martial arts, skills likely to be useful on the street. In Oakland racial and ethnic identity is rarely a neutral factor; I recall being required by two Oakland policemen in 1960 to show my car title before being allowed to proceed along the street to a bookshop. The officers, ahead of their time as ethnic profilers, probably suspected me of belonging to a despised, shiftless ethnic group, the Okies, plenty of whom could still be seen at the migrant-labor pickup points in Oakland in those days. The officers had me pegged pretty accurately, too: I grew up thirty miles from Oklahoma.

I mention all this because Scott Malcomson has planted himself as a writer at the confused, dangerous, traffic intersection of race and identity. On the first page of his first book, Tuturani, he asks these questions:

What does it mean to be white? Or black? How does a collection of people make themselves into a nation-state? Why should they want to? What are the distinctions between civilized (developed, modern) and uncivilized (developing, primitive)? What is paradise?

It was that final question—what is paradise?—that caused me to grab Tuturani, a book of political reportage about various of the Pacific islands and island groups: Palau, Guam, the Marshall Islands, Fiji, Vanuatu, French Polynesia. I was about to go to French Polynesia myself and was curious about the politics. Of the estimated thirteen thousand books and articles about Tahiti a great many call it paradise; and yet it…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.