Pt. 1. My Experiences
My relationship with African Americans has been a long, complex one.
My initial interaction with African Americans was extremely limited, and for that reason I was open to being influenced by stereotypes.
Up until eighth grade I had had no direct contact with African Americans other than seeing them play college and professional sports. Some of these were: Gene Baker, minor league baseball player, Elgin Baylor (maybe my all-time favorite NBA basketball player), and Jackie Robinson (because he stole home base against the damn New Yankees in the 1955 World Series).
In eighth grade my YMCA swim team traveled from Long Beach to downtown Los Angeles to compete against the 28Th Street Y. We beat them easily. Why, we asked, was it so easy? One explanation came from one of my fellow swimmers: “their heads are heavier than ours.”
I noticed the parents of these black swimmers were nice to us, even gentle I thought.
When I was in sixth grade, my mother and aunt related a story to me about black women beating up white women in the bathroom at work. I could sense a tone of finality in their voices, like this is what blacks are – people who beat up white people.
My mother called black rock n roll music jungle music. “You don’t want to dance to jungle music do you?” (Well, yes I did.) Among my favorite artists were Chuck Berry, and Johnny Otis.
I came in contact with more African Americans in high school sports. There were no black swimmers on any of the teams we competed against in Long Beach. But there were black football and basketball players. Always among the best athletes, African Americans seemed physically stronger and faster than most of our white athletes.
Whatever direct contact I had with African Americans was a bit confusing. For example, during an exchange between cheerleaders at a football game with an all black high school from Los Angeles, as head yell leader, I got on the microphone and told our fans about the exchange. I then said, “Let’s give them a big welcome. Let these mothas rock.”
I was told afterward that one of the female black cheerleaders was offended by what I had said. I was surprised. I thought I was being cool. But to that cheerleader I was being something else – prejudice, racist, condescending or something.
In 1966, my junior year of college at California State University at Long Beach, I teamed up with Roland Bush, an African American from Compton, California. We studied for Spanish tests together. On one occasion I brought him home for dinner.
One day Roland called me on the phone. “Hi, this is Roland.” “Roland who?” I asked. “Roland Bush,” was the reply. “Sorry, I don’t know a Roland Bush,” was my response. “We study Spanish together,” came a voice of exasperation. “Oh, Roland, sorry. . .” I responded.
From that point on, I couldn’t rekindle my friendship with Roland. I am sure my lapse was interpreted by Roland as some kind of hidden racism on my part.
I was shocked I had the memory block on the phone. This was when I too began to suspicion I had some form of racism imbedded inside of me causing me not remember Roland. It embarrassed and flummoxed me. At that time I couldn’t come up with any answer that satisfied me.
During the race riots of the 1960’s, I was genuinely concerned that blacks were going to bring down the country. One day I shared this with one of my university professors. He said that if it ever came to that, African Americans would lose. “They don’t want to overthrow the government,” he said, “they’re venting rage over discrimination and racism.”
After he said that, I relaxed. It felt like the beginning of a turning point for me. It was like the release of some deep seeded fear inside of me.
In the very early 1970’s, my wife and I were dorm parents at CSULB. We invited a young African American to have dinner with us in our apartment. To get to the dorm, he had to drive past a guard gate. He was turned away, even though his name had been placed on a “let in” list by me. He parked his car about a mile away and entered on foot. He told me what had happened. I flew off the handle, went to the guard shack, and got into a shouting match with the guard (actually it was more than that). That’s when I realized that blacks were frequently stopped by police on and off campus.
I had two feelings after that incident. One, I was happy I wasn’t thrown in jail for physically confronting the guard, and two, I was pissed to the high heaven that my house guest was turned away because he was black.
In 1991, I led a caravan of trucks and pickups loaded with food to the center of the LA Riots. One of my sons accompanied me. I wasn’t afraid.
In the late 1990’s, African Americans started entering the senior ranks of corporate management. That gave me a chance to work with them as a management consultant. One time in a conversation with an African American female I had gotten to know fairly well, I mentioned that being able to do that was meaningful for me. It’s helping me overcome a latent racism I think I might possess. She asked for examples. “It wouldn’t bother me if my children or grandchildren married an African American,” I said. “I think individuals like you have helped me overcome those latent prejudices.”
She didn’t respond immediately to what I said. I was pleased with what I had communicated to her. I thought she was pleased too. But, with a sudden burst of words she declared, “Roger, we don’t exist to make people like you feel better about yourselves.”
“What?” I said to myself. “What did I do this time?”
As a result, I became more cautious about what I publicly revealed to African Americans. I felt like it was a setback.
However, after thinking a great deal about this encounter, I think I understand what she was saying. African Americans don’t exist to help whites improve their racist tendencies. Whites have the responsibility themselves to overcome their racism. African Americans aren’t there to be servants in helping whites to rehabilitate or cure themselves.
Recently, I was in St. Louis a few days before the grand jury there was to come out with a verdict on the police shooting of a young African American teenager in Ferguson, a suburb of St. Louis. Personally, I thought the policeman acted responsibly when being attacked inside his vehicle by the black youth. Seconds later the young man came toward the policeman a second time. This time the policeman unloaded a hail of bullets that killed him.
The grand jury felt the same way I did, and failed to find enough evidence to find the policeman negligent.
I was consulting a group of young broadcasters in St. Louis at the time. They were almost all white. There were three blacks managers among about seventy white managers.
I told the managers not to worry. “Not too much will come of this,” I said.
Two to three days later, all hell broke loose.
From that point, police mistreatment of blacks started appearing all over the media. Here we go again, I thought. It’s the 1960’s and 1990’s all over again. But as things calmed down, it was evident that rioting and violence came nowhere close to what happened in the 60’s and 90’s. There were more protest marches, but not more violence and mayhem.
Police stand on the wall watching guard. We cease to be safe without them. But you can’t have that many people going to the streets in protest without something being wrong, AGAIN.
Pt. 2. My Analysis
Let me stop here. With these experiences serving as a base, Let’s see if I can make any sense out of the anatomy of my personal racism.
I think that the environment you grow up in reinforces racist myths. Racism is hard to overcome, but it is only hard, certainly not impossible.
I think each person has a responsibility to come to grips with their racism and cannot pass off that responsibility irrespective of circumstances.
African Americans occupy a unique place in American history. Brought here shackled and sold into slavery, African Americans were not afforded the dignity to be able to choose the course of their lives. For more than two hundred years, African American slaves had no rights, no liberties, no say in their destiny, and no power to keep their families intact. To break that tragic history, civil war, race riots, demonstrations, strikes, federal legislation and Supreme Court decisions have occurred on a fairly regular basis to rid America of formal and systemic racism.
This shows two sides of human nature. On the one hand there is the problem of humans engaging in the poor behavior of enslaving other humans. I believe this suggests a certain built in human tribal propensity (tendency). On the other hand there is a human quality of being able to recognize poor behavior and a moral drive to root it out and replace it with better behavior.
Presently the core of why racist feelings continue to exist at some level, albeit less than in the 1860’s, 1960’s and 19990’s, comes down to MONEY. In certain areas of black communities, there’s not enough money in the pockets of the people to sustain strong community life. It’s a structural issue that has many contributing factors: white flight from urban centers, black flight back to the south where better job opportunities now exist, black males being incarcerated at alarmingly high rates, low pre-school opportunities, policing tactics, lack of incentives for businesses to locate in core black neighborhoods, lack of financial support for poor blacks to attend college, and too little financial support for unemployed single black mothers etc.
We will face these problems the same way we have since 1860. We will do it with a fixed determination to right a wrong. In so doing we will slowly irradiate racism until there is no racism. With constant attention, racist feelings, policies, and practices gradually improve over time. I’ve seen this in my own life and in America as a whole. Never has one country invested so much treasure, reform, and sacrifice to address its sin of racism.
However, in my angrier moments sometimes I think blacks should just kick our white asses and throw us out of America. But then I look at my cool little grandchildren who have no idea what the hell I’m talking about.