From the time I was nine years old until I was seventeen, I lived in ethnically and racially diverse neighborhoods. During that time I only had one close friend of African-American heritage, although I played on sports teams with many more. I had literally dozens of Latino friends and even more friends of the Jewish faith. I would describe my parents as “race neutral”. Their mantra was basically “acceptance of everyone” without specific reference to race, color or creed. Unlike a few other parents with which I came in contact, my parents never used slang expressions to define people and, if I did, I was chastised and learned early on of the inappropriateness of my speech. Consequently, racism and bigotry were mostly foreign to me during my formative years. Then we moved to Texas.
The transition from Southern California to central Texas was an enlightening proposition. I enrolled for my senior year at Richfield High School in Waco, a beautiful little town of about ninety-eight thousand people halfway between Dallas and Austin on Interstate 35. In school for only a couple of days, I noticed something very strange, so I told one of the girls in my civics class who sat beside me, let’s call her Alice, what I had observed. Namely, there weren’t any blacks or Mexicans in the school, and I asked her why. Alice said, with a killer smile and thick drawl, “Oh, ’cause those people don’t live in our school district.”
“Ah,” I said, thinking that was a logical reason. Then I thought about it, and it raised another question, so the next day I asked, “Alice, why don’t blacks and Mexicans live in this school district?”
The pretty girl looked at me as if I must be from another planet and said, matter-of-factly, “Because no self-respectin’ real estate agent would dare to sell a black or Mexican family a home in our school district.” She went on to point out that the blacks and Mexicans all went to Waco High School because it was in “their part of town.” I remember being dumbfounded by her response and the casual way she accepted this seemingly arbitrary natural order of things.
My whole life’s experience, everything I was ever taught, told me this was wrong. It was my first encounter with segregation. And over the next year, I learned some of my first lessons about bigotry, prejudice, and racism and how some people do see and give a lot of thought to the color of one’s skin. To be fair, not everyone at Richfield was like that, but many, unfortunately, were. That year was a real eye-opener for me in more ways than one. I was pretty much raised to judge a person, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had so eloquently put it back in 1963, not “by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” And here I was among so many people—good people, honest people, intelligent people—who truly believed that a person’s character might have something to do with skin color.
I had to make a decision. Either I adapted to this new culture or I stayed true to my values. Richfield was my third high school in three years. My father was in the aerospace industry working for North American Aviation Corporation on the Mercury space program’s Saturn One rocket. He had been transferred to the Rocketdyne facility in McGregor, Texas, which was about fifteen minutes outside of Waco. It was a huge culture shock moving from Southern California to Texas, but I liked these good southern kids, and I wanted them to like me. I wanted to be a part of their lives, but I couldn’t accept some of their thinking on this issue of race. I vowed to myself that I would stay true to my upbringing and my own feelings. I tried to encourage others to think as I did, sometimes to my detriment.
Later on, that next summer before I went off to college, I thought about the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which had just passed. All I really knew about the new law was that it was supposed to not only champion the rights of blacks but women and all minorities. However, back then, I had my doubts if even this much debated legislation really had a chance to level the public playing field here in the South.
Despite the fact that dozens of pieces of legislation have followed since 1964, racism, bigotry, prejudice and inequalities among the races continues to this day. The cold-hearted “murder” of George Floyd is a case in point. Practically every American, who watches the news on just about any of the hundreds of media formats available today, has seen this deplorable act many times. The courts will ultimately determine what punishment(s) will be appropriate. In the meantime, people have taken to the streets of our nation’s cities, large and small, to protest not only the lethal treatment of Mr. Floyd, but to seek justice and substantive change. Most of these demonstrations have been peaceful; however, some have deteriorated into violence and lawlessness and those acts, as well as the reaction (some might say “overreaction”) against them have fanned the flames of division and hatred in our country. It has been compared to the worst of the race riots of my youth in the 1960’s.
This is the start of a series of comments I will be posting here over the next several weeks where I try to sort out, for myself and anyone who wants to follow along, where we are today, how we got here, and where we are going in the future as it relates to race in our country. It won’t be easy. It is a complex and complicated issue. Some of you might disagree with my opinions and/or conclusions and that is your right. I really do want to hear a range of opinions. I will try to be factual and use verifiable sources for my assertions and commentary. I will try to be fair. My first assertion is that there is not one group who is all right and one group who is all wrong. If you can be open-minded and agree with that, let's see where this goes. My first follow-up post will be this weekend. Please let me know if you are interested enough to follow along.
Jud, as you know, I grew up in a "Sun Down Town" where the racism was silent and simply accepted. I didn't encounter a person of color until we played away football games and track meets in a couple of towns with African American athletes. And then at college. I have had a learning curve which continues. I am anti-racism and ashamed of that past.ReplyDelete
I think part of the way forward is listening to each other's stories. We just don't know each other that well anymore, but we are damn sure quick to judge the other. As we both know, quick judgment - while good for survival in a pinch - doesn't serve us well in the long-run of everyday (non-survival) situations. I like how you share your story here. Waiting to hear more . . .ReplyDelete
Thank you for your comments and for following along. I will do my best to make this series as balanced as I can. Jud.Delete