I grew up on Long Island in a community which, until about 1948, was essentially segregated. Most kids of Italian parentage lived at the far end of town, on the “other side of the tracks,” although in this case, the tracks consisted of an imaginary boundary, not actual tracks. The few local black kids were bussed to Glen Cove, an adjacent town, a small city, actually, with a larger population of black families.
One day, in fifth grade, the principle came into class with a black boy and announced that Lloyd would become our classmate. Why this should be the moment when our public school should be integrated, I have no idea.
Much to my surprise, the teacher appointed me to be Lloyd’s companion and “friend.” As I recall, Lloyd made the transition from the highly segregated South to the (theoretically) integrated North without too much difficulty, once he overcame his extreme shyness. That transition and his acceptance were made smoother by his ability to outrun everyone else on the athletic field.
Although we Americans claim that the days of segregation are behind us, de factosegregation lives on both in an experiential sense and in the hearts and minds of many.
One only need look at the many gated communities in our country and a real-estate profession that steers buyers toward homes where they are likely to “fit in.” Some, but not all, charter schools work in a similar way. And how many of us have repeated a joke based on pure bigotry, another way to wall off us from the “other”?
Not long before Lloyd entered fifth grade, the community put on a minstrel show, complete with black face and Amos ‘n’ Andy-type repartee.
Less controversial at the earlier time was the fact that a few of the players in our community’s minstrel show were elementary school teachers.
The original radio players were white men sporting “authentic” black accents. Later, a televised version appeared that generated no small amount of controversy.
Of course, that earlier, seemingly innocent bigotry has a more recent incarnation in the revelation that two State of Virginia officeholders who wore blackface in the 1980s when commonsense, to say nothing of basic decency, should have told them, at that later date, that such an exhibition was offensive to their black neighbors and to society at large.
Virginia Governor Northam’s and Attorney General Herring’s refusal to resign reflect both insensitivity and a business-as-usual attitude. If we are a Christian nation, as some claim, the question must be asked: When will we begin to honor the Teacher’s words?
I was brought up in a bigoted household. Like many of his contemporaries, my English father disliked most non-English ethnicities: in particular, Germans and Irish, even though my mother was of mostly German ancestry.
Recently, I submitted a saliva sample for genetic testing. Ironically, it turns out that I am 48 percent Irish and only 8 percent English, plus an assortment of other northern European genes (including 2.7 percent Neanderthal–steak tartare anyone?).
None of this test explains why I love Italian food, but it does explain the fact that I, like all of you, am a crossbreed, a mongrel, as it were. And the fact that all of our ancestors emigrated from Africa some 60 million years ago means that at our very cores, we are all black.
So, remember, whenever you utter a racial slur or joke, you are directing it at yourself.
Bill Britton is a freelance writer and formerly an editor for John Hopkins University Press, ABI Research, and Elsevier Science. He is a frequent contributor to Vero Communiqué.
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