Prejudice since the 50s--what I know
[Blog 1 in a series on the topic of prejudice and its effect on communities and the nation. Purpose: To seek a way forward, both socially and politically.]
Current state of affairs. The continued existence of emotionally-charged prejudice in the United States is an impediment to education, and such prejudice is kept alive by self-interested media and politicians. Yet, the history, economics and philosophies we need to know and understand to make wise decisions in our communities and in the voting booth must be taught.
Some Americans resent, distrust or hate others based on race, ethnicity, non-traditional gender identity, advanced education or their political affiliations. Also, some Americans set race, ethnicity, gender, non-traditional gender identity, or political affiliations above the value of individual rights and freedom, and they resent, distrust or hate others based on perceived low education level, religious affiliations or their political affiliations. I have friends in both of these camps as well as other liberal and conservative friends who use moderation to express themselves and are less apt to express hatred.
Highlighting and exploitation of prejudice today. The tendency to dislike, or even hate, the “other” is not new, but mass media and social media exploit these divisions today. Political parties, valuing power over effective solutions, also are exploiting these divisions to the point where resentment and distrust overshadow consideration of economic and philosophical principles.
Racial prejudice in the past. Clearly, many of our problems in the United States began with slavery, followed by segregation. These institutions existed mainly in the South. Racial prejudice did exist in the Ohio, Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin communities I lived in or where my relatives lived by the time of the 1950s. However, I, like many, especially children, was nearly oblivious to it. Here is a retrospective, based on my personal experiences:
Attitudes of Midwesterners in the 1950s. In late 1945 or early 1946, my mother took me as a baby to visit my dad who had not yet been discharged from the Army and was stationed in Arkansas. She enjoyed telling the story of my calling a black man at the bus station “Daddy” and his replying, “I ain’t your daddy, honey!” She would have used the word negro, which was normal at the time. I didn’t detect prejudice, but only amusement, when she told the story. My Swedish grandmother in Minneapolis seemed to be more concerned about the Irish than the negroes. She particularly disliked Irish tenors. Like most Midwesterners, except those in large cities, I rarely saw black people.
What I was taught about race. I was taught that we should use the word “tiger” in “Eeny-meeny-miney-mo” because the other word was not nice. I was taught that it is not nice to stare, and particularly when we drove through southside Chicago on the way to Ohio. In fact, we kids were told to roll our windows up. A black child, Albert, joined my fourth grade in Wheaton, Illinois. I came home and asked my mother how I was supposed to behave toward him, and she told me to be nice to him the same way I was to other people. He didn’t stay long, so I don’t remember him well. But in what seems like a contradiction to what she tried to teach me, my mother was against using colors such as chartreuse, hot pink, cerise because she said they are negro colors. I didn’t argue with her, but I wondered what that really implied.
Limited exposure of white students in small towns or cities to African Americans. I did observe black students at Wheaton Community High School, but they were two, three or four years ahead of me, so I didn’t get to know them. They were smart and they were popular, especially because the guys were great football, basketball and track stars. I learned later that their families had come to Wheaton before the Civil War. It didn’t occur to me until I experienced black culture first hand to wonder where they went to get haircuts, where their homes were, or other such things. They were just there, they were cool, and everybody knew their names.
There were no black kids at Oshkosh High where I finished school in 1963. We saw black people fishing on the bridges in town, and an upper-middle-class black family attended my Lutheran Church for a while after they came to Oshkosh and bought a brewery. Later, black families migrated from Chicago to Wheaton and from Milwaukee to Oshkosh, but this was after my public-school years. I do remember one of my Oshkosh High School girl friends saying that she just loved Johnny Mathis.
I saw no black students at Oshkosh State College in 1963-65. Even during 1965-1968 at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, I saw very few African Americans. In fact, I mainly remember seeing interracial gay male couples on State Street.
A friend of mine who grew up in a very small town in western Oklahoma (and who, like me, has taught at an historically black college in Georgia for decades) says that she had no real contact with black people as a child, either. She and her siblings were taught to respect other people and to believe in equality, and they learned in school that segregation is wrong. Only later did she discover to her dismay that many people in her community had prejudice against blacks.
What we believed and were taught in school. In the 1950s, we learned in school and saw on television that civil rights were being granted to African Americans, and segregated schools were going to be integrated, beginning with first grade. We were taught that these events were very positive and important. We weren’t against the South—we thought one southern girl’s accent was charming, and when I was in elementary school, we liked to play games including Robert E. Lee and his horse Traveller. But we also loved Roy Rogers’ Trigger and Gene Autry’s Champion. I developed a love of jazz starting in fifth grade based on exposure to Gershwin and Louis Armstrong.
Later in the Sixties. In around 1966, I visited with my aunt and my older cousin, a trucker, in a small town in Ohio near Toledo. I was very disturbed when in reaction to new developments in trucking, my cousin said at the dinner table, “I’ll work with ‘em and I’ll eat with ‘em, but I won’t sleep with ‘em!” His experiences and things he was taught, whatever they were, had led to racial or perhaps homophobic prejudice. On the other hand, a different aunt and uncle who lived in a two-story house in Toledo found their neighborhood changing from entirely white to entirely black except for them. Yet, they ended their lives in their home, and I heard no negative race-based stories from them or about their experience living there.
I can’t really be proud of my “oblivious” childhood, with my being largely unaware of racial prejudice but also being unaware of real black people and their lives. Still, it does seem like a better start than being taught to look down on or hate people based on race.
In the South. Growing up in the South obviously was different. I asked a white friend of mine, an author who grew up in a very small town in Georgia, about her experiences, and she said, “As a writer, I'd love to write something set in the 40s and 50s, but can't because I know my happy memories were set against a backdrop of mean-spirited exploitation and really vicious inequities.”
Some of my black students from small towns in Georgia encountered few whites in their daily lives while others, or at least their parents, had to work for and with whites. From some of my black students I learned about views southern blacks held about white people (and perhaps northern blacks held them as well). I learned we smile too much (I hope I don’t but I’m not sure), there is doubt about how good a job we do at bathing, and most of us don’t seem to be able to dance (I’m guilty on this one). To this day, most in the black community do not trust local white political leaders.
As for the attitude of whites: After we finally got black law enforcement officers in our town around 1976, black officers showed up at a small traffic accident in front of a store I patronized. The perfectly nice white lady at the cash register looked upset. She cried, “Who’s in charge of those sheriffs?”
Effects of past efforts towards tolerance. School desegregation was intended to give equal education to all children, throughout the nation, not just in the South, but also to integrate society. The Civil Rights Movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. moved things forward. Yet, as we see in 2019, integrating society and reducing prejudice have proved to be an enormous challenge. This must be because old habits, superstitions and prejudices die slowly. But it also is because people with power and in power resist change or, worse, use prejudice to get and keep power.
I believe increased knowledge of history, economics and philosophies will enable more of us to make wise decisions in our communities and in the voting booth. It will be hard to teach children and harder to teach adults as long as overcharged prejudice is prevalent--and, with it, incorrect theories and views about economics--and even encouraged by media and politicians. The only way forward is through education, but despite valuable books being published recently such as Suicide of the West by Jonah Goldberg and Them: Why We Hate Each Other and How to Heal by Ben Sasse, it is hard to see how education can be improved and pervasive enough to make a difference unless some other factor in the equation changes.
In this series, I will explore, from my perspective, whether knowledge of the past or of other factors can lead us to a solution. Future topics will include:
Observations on the subjects of friends, family, country, cultures and nature.