A Hope for the End of Racial Prejudice
These days there’s a lot going on that can bend you toward a depressed mood. Almost every Facebook thread, for example, if it has any relevance to race relations, rapidly devolves into name calling and profanities. An alarming number of the negative comments also show a casual or purposeful disregard for the rudiments of our language. I mean really, if you can’t be bothered to spell swear words correctly, what hope is there that anyone will be swayed by your comments?
But I don’t think these people care. They are so pleased to have a venue where, at last, they can vent their venom and spew their bile all over a limitless audience.
“The arc of history is long but it tends toward justice” is a quote created by clergyman Theodore Parker in the 19th century, and then used by both Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. I think it would be more complete to add “and it varies in a sort of three steps forward and two back sort of rhythm.” Which is course, would make it unwieldy as a quote.
In some regards I’m in a weak position to write about racism. I’m sort of a poster boy for the history of white male privilege. I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis in a home full of books and music and conversations about chemistry and physics. Occasionally my parents and older brothers would allow a few moments for discussion of topics of focus for me – cars, motorcycles, and sports. I was given an excellent education in some of the finest public schools anywhere – both then and now.
I had little direct experience with racism in any form. I knew all the black kids in my junior high. Her name was Alice, and she was a fine trombone player. Still, even a naïve young lad can look at the TV news showing black marchers in the South being attacked by attack dogs and mounted police with clubs and know that this is wrong.
I recall one of the issues of the day. Should patients in hospitals be told the race of the blood donor who was saving their lives? My parents were so disgusted with the utter stupidity of it all. As my mother said, with a sad shake of her head, “Blood is blood. Period.”
I did have contact with other forms of bias. My mother was a mechanical engineer, and one evening I listened as she chatted with a friend who was a professor of anthropology. Both women had been pretty much ostracized by all the women in their respective neighborhoods because a.) they were educated and b.) they had jobs. I think that was my first experience of moral outrage, and I was 14. I had been pampered and sheltered from a lot of real world issues for 14 years, in other words.
My brother married Irene in 1967. Irene was second generation Japanese American. My grandmother, of North Dakota farming stock, was not pleased. When she saw the pictures I brought home from the California wedding, as far as she could go was to say “Well, I understand they are a clean people.” I left the room.
On their honeymoon in Utah, George and Irene were stopped by the police during a train stop in Salt Lake City and queried about why they were there and why they were together. George assured the officers that they would be gone in ten minutes, choosing not to share with them that Irene had been born just a few miles away in an internment camp during WWII. And the subtlety of sexism is wrapped up in the fact that the officers did not question Irene at all.
Today, in addition to the overt racism of the new-Nazis and their ilk, we also can experience so many of the subtler forms that have always been there. Would all the strident calls for NFL players who choose not to stand for the national anthem be as vehement if almost all of them were not black? I really doubt it.
Racism and other forms of bias are hardly new, whether overt or covert, and it seems like they have been here forever. Because they have. In the last few months the haters have come out in force, both in demonstrations and in political conventions and all over social media. When will it end? Where can we look for a ray of hope, much like the sun that peeked out again from behind the moon after today’s eclipse event? Will there be light? I think so. Maybe.
Consider smoking. Really. In my youth it seemed that almost everyone (except my parents) smoked cigarettes. People smoked in their homes, in their cars, in their workplace, restaurants, trains, planes, and everywhere else. The tobacco industry was huge and had enormous political clout and a PR war chest overflowing with hundreds of millions of dollars. Surely nothing would ever change.
This was in relatively recent times. I can recall having dinner in a fancy restaurant before the prom in 1965. My friend John, resplendent in his tux, showed us that you could even smoke a breadstick! One of the funniest things I ever saw. Nobody in the restaurant noticed because people were smoking everywhere.
I was in the hospital in 1969 recovering from surgery to repair the shoulder that my exuberance and lack of talent had damaged with a really stupid motorcycle accident. With my usual good luck, I had managed to stuff my motorcycle into a ditch at about 50 miles an hour – in the back yard of a very kind nurse.
She came by to see me each day I was in the hospital. She brought me a milkshake, drew the curtain around my bed, and sat down to enjoy the real reason for her visit. A cigarette! In a hospital room. This was perfectly OK at that time.
When I was president of our local teacher’s union from 1976- 1978 I had an office, and on my desk were two jars of pipe tobacco. I smoked my pipe several times a day. One of my two secretaries smoked – a lot. Nobody thought this was unusual.
And then, so slowly at first, the worm began to turn. Do you remember the furor that erupted when airlines began to ban smoking in planes? For decades it was common to sit in a long aluminum tube with hundreds of people you did not know and spend hours inhaling their smoke. When the idea was mooted that this would end, oh the hue and cry! Many cited their fear of flying, and felt that they simply could not survive the stress of a flight without a soothing hit of nicotine.
And at the same time, restaurants began to offer no smoking areas. And legislation followed. It was not a pretty or easy process.
Despite the massive push back from the tobacco industry and millions of addicted smokers, the trend toward elimination of smoking where it would affect others continued.
It did not come all at once. For years airports had glassed in “cages” where smokers could gather. Ironically, this was the last gasp of conversation in airports. Smokers would light up and talk to their fellow pariahs about where they were from and the affairs of the day, whereas now airport interiors tend to be human parking lots with everyone focused on their phones.
And now, just a short time later in historical terms, we take it for granted that people do not smoke in planes or restaurants or any other enclosed public space.
People still smoke, to be sure. I have members of my extended family that smoke. I smoke a pipe. But none of us indoors, and I do not smoke in my car any more.
All of this came about in a matter of a couple of decades, through concerted political action and the willingness of some politicians to stand up to the political clout and cash reserves of big tobacco.
I wonder if there was a “tipping point,” where the idea of eliminating the inhalation of tobacco smoke as a part of everyone’s life took hold and slowly began to advance. And then faster. And then – here we are.
Could the same thing happen with racism? Like tobacco once was, racism is everywhere. Its adherents are well funded, organized, and politically powerful. Racism, in one form or another, has been around for centuries, and is embedded in the core of many cultures. So was tobacco.
Could the rise of blatant racist rhetoric in the past couple of years and the ugly demonstrations we see today actually be the final death rattle of racism? Will the massive crowds now turning out in peaceful denunciation of racist beliefs sway public opinion to where racism becomes a memory in two or three decades?
Seems unlikely, I know, but as I sit out on my deck and enjoy my pipe – I have hope!
Copyright 2017 David Preston