Monday, April 3, 2017

I Don't Get It


They could only sit in certain designated seats in the back of the bus. There were separate designated water fountains, rest rooms and entrances to buildings for them. Some businesses denied them access or service. Signs indicting these restrictions were posted in highly visible locations.

'They' were called colored or negro or other things I won't write here; words and slurs that were a regular part of white American vocabulary as recently as the 1960s.

People under 50 might only recognize those scenes as something described in history books. Boomers like me lived through those scenes. I hate to admit it, but my parents, their siblings and their friends were racist for much of their lives. It didn't occur to them that there was anything wrong with that attitude. Thinking of African American people as a little bit subhuman was passed on from generation to generation and that belief was often reinforced by limited personal exposure to black people. If the only black people you met, or more likely saw from a distance, were undereducated, you assumed they all were.

Prior to high school, the only black people I ever had a conversation with were the husband-and-wife maid and gardener employed by our next door neighbors. Corrine and Jasper were friendly people. I didn't understand why white people held black people in such low esteem.

My private, Catholic high school had exactly two black students out of a 300+ student population. One of them gave up after his first year, presumably because of the unfair treatment he received. The other one played trumpet in the band, which is how we met. Maybe he got better treatment because he was the son of a locally famous restaurant owner or maybe he just didn't take any shit from white students.

I met more black people in college but none were actually friends. The first time I had a meaningful conversation with an African American who eventually became a friend was in the Army. My bunk mate Ron and I had middle-of-the-night guard shifts together once a week and we had some great, perspective-building conversations. I wish I had keep in touch with him after basic training.

I semi-dated a black woman many years later. We were really just friends but we went to movies and restaurants often, laughed a lot and occasionally held hands walking down the sidewalk. We also occasionally got odd looks from white people and even one almost insult from a black waiter once. And this was in 1993. How can people, black and white, still have negative thoughts relating to race? I don't get it.

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