Sometimes you must let these ideas incubate inside of you; these are
ideas which have been with me most all of my life. They were ideas just
percolating under the surface, just under the skin, so to speak. I was
born towards the end of the 1950's and my early days were spent in a
lily white, baby boomer suburb outside Chicago. There were no black
people there none, zip, nada.
When we would watch television inside this white bubble, I saw no black
people on TV with the exception of Louis Armstrong or Sammy Davis
Junior. Because of this, I had no understanding of race in America,
none, zip, nada. I was still a small child when I saw Martin Luther King
on television, in front of the Lincoln Memorial and the power of his
voice moved me. I felt as if I were hearing the voice of god himself.
My parents were both children of the Great Depression and my mother was a
Catholic and I remember her explaining to me about the civil rights
movement by saying, "the same people who don't like those people because
of their color don't like you because of your religion." It was a very
simple concept even for a child to understand, the internal belief in
the superiority of one group over another because of their beliefs or
the color of their skin or both. My parents were both great liberals and
supporters of the civil rights movement but still they had no contact
with black people, none, zip, nada.
In 1965, we moved to Montgomery Alabama. We lived in a lily white
settled neighborhood and the only black people I saw there were the
maids walking to the bus stop along towards evening. When we would go
shopping downtown I would see black people but had no contact with them.
They were not cashiers or employed in positions where they would have
contact with the public. But I remember one day seeing a baby doll for
sale in a store and it was a black baby and I still remember thinking
what great idea that was. Obviously, black children would want to play
with a baby doll that looked like them.
Montgomery pried open my ignorance about race, we went to the movies at a
theater downtown and I saw a balcony and being a precocious ten year
old boy the lure was almost irresistible. How cool, I thought it would
be to watch the movie from up there in the balcony, but no matter how
hard I searched, I could not find the stairs. Finally, I asked the
usher, "Where are the stairs to the balcony?" He answered abruptly, "The
balcony is closed."
His answer did not explain to me where the stairs were and it was years
before I discovered that the stairs were located on the outside of the
building almost like a fire escape and offering no access to either the
snack bar or to the restrooms. The balcony had been closed by a
presidential executive order which banned segregation in public places.
This was the same executive order which prompted Montgomery city
officials to close and destroy all of the cities public swimming pools.
The officials had used city funds, equipment and employees to fill these
pools in and cover them over with asphalt rather than to share them
with its black citizens. The local public library was having a book sale
and so we went looking to find some good books. Most of the books in
the sale were text books because at this time the state and county did
not supply free text books. The text books had to be purchased each year
by the student's parents.
This wasn't your head on fill in the swimming pools type of racism but a
more subtle economic racism. Of course, since blacks couldn't be hired
into better paying jobs it was more difficult for them to be able to
afford to educate their children. My parents were conscious of what was
going on in Montgomery and so when Martin Luther King led the march from
Selma to Montgomery down Hwy 80 my parents loaded us up in the car and
we went to see the march. I saw a lot of black people and a lot of cops
but understood little about voter's rights.
We moved back to Chicago in 1967 and I attended a junior high school
with 1,200 students and of that number only two of the students were
black. I had no idea of how to relate, it wasn't that I disliked them or
hated them. I just didn't understand in those tumultuous times how to
break through the barriers which divided us. It was due mainly to my own
self imposed fear based quarantine, for no good reason what so ever I
was afraid of them. They were different from me, strange and alien and I
was an ignorant little white boy. For all my liberal ideals of equality
and of teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony, I was a fraud.
Circumstances placed me back in Montgomery in 1973 and this time I was
attending a high school where half of the students were black. A school
named after the President of the Confederacy which had only been
integrated for three years before my arrival. These black people were so
different in my eyes, their clothes were different and their hair was
different and to a great degree I couldn't understand their Southern
black English which led to a lot of nodding my head and answering "un
huh" no matter what I was asked.
Gradually, my fear diminished and just as gradually my dislike for a lot
of the white population grew. Many of the whites, both adults and
children were coarse and ugly in their speech and attitudes towards the
black population. It became for me not so much a matter of race as a
matter of civilization. Which side are you on? Are you going to live
your life hateful and close minded or accepting and willing to learn
I quickly learned that if your car broke down in Montgomery you had
better hope that there were some black folks around because white folks
wouldn't stop to help a long haired white boy under any circumstances. I
was living in a rough side of town and the battery in my car had died.
My roommate was going to give me a jump and I had hooked the jumper
cables to my car when a black man turned his car around in traffic and
pulled up in front of my car and popped his hood latch and enabled me to
get to work on time.
There was no conversation between us as I called out "thank you" and he
just waved. I couldn't buy a new battery until Friday and there he was
the next day and the day after that to jump me off. He never asked for
anything and he owed me as a white man in Montgomery Alabama nothing. As
a teenager, I was traveling from Montgomery to Chicago on a train; I
struck up a conversation with an older black woman taking her
grandchildren back to their parents in Chicago.
This woman was the only person on the train to notice that I wasn't
eating. But what she did was more than to just offer me a sandwich
because she allowed me to keep my dignity along with the sandwich as she
explained, "The children won't eat egg salad, would you please do me a
favor and eat it so I don't have to throw it away." It was a small act
of charity but to me it was near divine as this woman raised and reared
in the Jim Crow south where text books weren't free and white
politicians would rather fill in public swimming pools before sharing
them with black children saw only my hunger and not my race.
My thirty five years in the Deep South have given me hundreds of other
instances where black people have been inordinately kind to me. Over the
years I've had more trouble with white people than with black. I had as
a customer in Montgomery who was a Tuskegee Airman, he told me stories
of returning from Italy as a decorated veteran and being forced to stand
on the train after it passed Saint Louis into the Deep South. It made
me ashamed of this country as I asked, "Didn't that make you angry?"
He smiled, "That's they way things were then, they're better now." He
was right of course, but then he was wrong as well. Barack Obama was
elected the President of the United States but still, even as he
finishes his first term the racism and racist remarks persist. I had
left the Deep South for Minnesota and once again there weren't many
black people around and I found that I missed their community.
I visited Texas and a black cashier checked my groceries and I had to
tell her "it's just so nice to hear southern speech with its warm tones
and friendly colloquialisms which have become so deeply ingrained into
my own voice and vocabulary. I don't see it as white guilt but of white
understanding and this was all brought into sharp focus by the killing
of Trayvon Martin.
Once again, I'm ashamed by the behavior of so many of my white brethren.
I have seen and heard their outright racism shouted from the balconies
of intolerance on anonymous internet boards but what's more troubling,
and even worse, is the subtle text book racism. The willingness suspend
common sense and to make excuses for an obviously unjustified shooting
of an unarmed teenager. It is a sickening behavior, it is appalling and I
am reviled by it.
It makes me ashamed to be white as the other day I heard and older white
man explain to his friends, "I'll tell you what's wrong with health
care, its lawyers suing everyone" then as the subject changed to the
shooting he added in the same breath, "Oh, we can't tell what went on,
but if the cops didn't arrest him it must have been justified." It is
this subtle and pervasive racism, just under the skin which has been
with us always in this country. An almost subliminal racism which
implies if the victim is a black man he must have somehow deserved it.
The bigots and Klansmen types can easily be ignored because they so
richly display the bankruptcy of their ideology with their own tongues.
It makes them easy to distinguish and difficult to take seriously, but
this subtle racism disguised as hoodies and questions of Trayvon's
character that is something else. If Trayvon Martin had been struck by
lightening no one would ask what clothes Trayvon was wearing and no one
would ask about his school record, but Trayvon wasn't hit by lightening.
He was shot and killed by a grown man, a grown man who identified
Trayvon as black and suspicious and possibly on drugs to 911 operators.
I have heard George Zimmerman supporters make the claim that George
Zimmerman isn't a racist. I will accept that Zimmerman isn't a
segregated balcony racist, but instead to me he's a text book racist. He
wouldn't shout the "N" word at school children attempting to
desegregate a public school but he will instead mumble under his breath,
"The ***** always get away," because he feared and suspected anyone
strange or different from himself. A teenager minding his own business
eating Skittles and talking to his girlfriend appeared to George
Zimmerman as a gang banger and as a threat. This is the modern day text
book racist, rather than preaching racial superiority based on an
ingrained fear we see the inverted version, a fear based racism based
only upon ignorance and stereotype.
Frank Zappa once said, "I'm not black, but there's a whole lots a times I
wish I could say I'm not white." Me too Frank, but what is most
important is for those in the white community, who do care and who
aren't afraid, is to speak up and to not let the subliminal and
pervasive modern text book racism to hold the floor and to control the
dialogue. The victory of this modern text book racism is entirely
dependent on what racism has always been dependent on, on good people