I have a storied past with race. One of my first memories about race was walking down the street with two of my sisters and saying to them out loud as we passed two Black teenagers, “Look at those niggers.” Those guys got upset at my sisters.
My parents were from the greatest generation and that generation had a mixed reality with race. The Black servicemen who served in WW2 came back to the same racist reality at home.
During the Depression, my father had wandered the south with no money, hopping freight trains and sitting at campfires with hobos. Those experiences probably opened him up to sympathizing with the plight of minorities.
Kids on the spectrum often have a keen sense of social justice, and I watched very closely how my parents behaved around minorities. It was the height of Jim Crow and the civil rights movement, and Metuchen, New Jersey, was as racist as anywhere, if more subtly so.
The schools weren’t segregated, but the neighborhoods were, even if some homes on the Black streets were nicer than some of the homes on the white streets. I had a paper route that went through both neighborhoods and had to deliver and collect my money every week. There didn’t seem to be any difference to me.
My dad was politically conservative on many issues, though often on the right side on social justice issues. When the first Black Catholic bishop from Africa was visiting our town, my dad invited him to dinner. This same man had been denied a haircut on that same day at the barbershop on Main Street.
Another time, I overheard my dad say that when he visited his company’s garment manufacturing plant in Tennessee, he would play along with the racist foremen to see which of them were mistreating the Black workers, then he would pin them to the rails for discrimination.
But even as he stood up for Blacks, he was an “Archie Bunker” type, and I once overheard him brag to a neighbor that there would be no “Negroes” buying in the subdivision where we were building our home. The hypocrisy didn’t make any sense to me as he supported John F. Kennedy and stayed up all night the night of his election.
After school in the fifties and early sixties, I would sit by the table radio by the window in the dining room and listen to WABC out of New York City. I was very upset about the way that Blacks were being treated and the struggle for civil rights. My favorite song during this time was the “Eve of Destruction.” “Think of all the hate there is in Red China, then take a look around at Selma, Alabama.”
In college, in Maryland, the day Martin Luther King was killed I was in the student union watching TV and the other students cheered and I burst into tears. I became an activist and went to demonstrations. I read the books by Malcolm X and Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice. My Polish great-uncle was visiting and picked it up and started reading it, saying to me, “This is a very intelligent Black man.” I admired him for being open.
After college I worked in an all-Black summer camp for inner city youth from Washington, DC. The only one white camper the whole summer was put in my cabin. He was being mistreated and I protected him and the other counselors saw this as favoritism. I stood up to them and they did not like it. In the middle of that night they visited my room, dumping all the pee cans on me in my bed.
I was furious and the next morning at circle up in front of the flag, I called them out and the director called us into his office. I confronted them with, “This is racism in reverse.” After that I had no problems. I was not scared off and stayed the entire summer. But if I had been Black, I might have been strung up in some tree in the woods. So I saw it as a little payback for the past.
Then I had a job in a community policing program set up after the riots to bridge the gap between the all-white policemen who lived in the suburbs and the Black community leaders. I was the token white hippie. We were to help people who would be arrested for petty crimes to get housing, food, etc.
A contingent of the police, community leaders, and I went to a weekend retreat together to communicate. I ended up being the mediator. When we returned we rode in the back of police cars at night to monitor their actions. They did not like that either and that was ended soon.
My life moved on and I had a family and operated three group homes in Las Vegas. One of our students was from an abusive home, and after he returned home his mom reported him to the authorities and they were going to send him to the state juvenile prison. We knew that she was the real problem, not him. We asked him if he wanted to be adopted. He was 16 but we could see him through to being on his own. His mom said good riddance and he became the first interracial adoption in Nevada history. He is now 56 years old.
In my discussions with my adopted son over the years, he has pointed out to me my racist views. How I looked at Al Sharpton originally as a racist commentator. I think I was reacting to a Black man standing up strong and not backing down.
Now I see the difference. I still react to certain minorities with negative thoughts. To be honest, when I go through the Atlanta airport sometimes I get thoughts that some of the overweight Blacks are just ignorant or lazy. I don’t even like saying that, but the origins of my racism run deep in me.
The Black Lives Matter movement brought it all to the fore for me. There is so much institutionalized racism. The biggest white race riot in the country in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is not in any history book. I think the problem now is that people think since they do not harbor any overt racist thoughts or actions that the problem should be over. After all it was our ancestors who did this, not us. But that is just not true.
In South Africa the Truth and Reconciliation Commission would take no action against anyone who came forward and admitted they killed someone. I think the first and biggest reparation should be a full accounting of what happened in our country and who did what to whom, to get into integrity about who we are and how we want it to be. I really believe that Black Americans would so appreciate that and it would go a long way to healing us.
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