On Racism

Before I read Soosan’s and Daveman’s comments I had not thought about the racist possibility of crackers. I am really naïve when it comes to that stuff. I don’t use racial slurs and I don’t know very many. You guys’ comments did remind me about a story about growing up in the ’60s and how racism affects people, though.

The school where I went to 4th grade in 1968 was Garden Homes Elementary School, in Milwaukee, WI. At the time the school’s population was mostly black, I don’t know the exact ratio but in a class of 30 there were maybe 4 white kids. I had friends in both groups and never really gave a thought too much about it. I didn’t know what was going on with riots and Civil Rights marches and all that stuff. I was 8 years old. In fact, the class bully, Laron (He said it Lay-ron), an inarticulate thug that could barely walk upright, cornered me one day and said, “Are you prejudiced?”

“What’s that mean?”

“You don’t like me because I’m black.”

“What would that have to do with anything? You always beat people up.”

“So you sayin’ you don’t even know what prejudice is?”

“Yeah.”

He walked away trying to figure that one out. Oh I had heard my dad and my uncle talk about how some mysterious “they” were taking all the good jobs and “they” were going to ruin the neighborhood if too many of “them” moved in, but I didn’t know or care who “they” were, I knew I was pretty sure I hadn’t seen them.

I was 8 years old on April 4, 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I had no idea who he was or what he did.

I soon learned.

Reactions were emotional and varied and I really didn’t understand what was going on. The school (my teacher was black as was much of the faculty) decided that it would do a tribute program and involve the children. I was one of the best readers and had just skipped 3rd grade and would be a perfect choice to remember a hard part, if I wanted to. Well, by this time I had some knowledge about what was going on and of course I did. I loved reading and could recite pretty well. My dad was hard-of-hearing so I had learned to project my voice.

I can still remember the part that I learned. Part of a sermon/speech this man had made. I remembered it and recited it and thought about what it meant. It was,

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

That was quite a mouthful when you were 8, but I learned it and felt proud and important and liked saying the words. They were hopeful and nice and, most importantly to me, true. I understood their significance.

The day before the big production came fast. It was on that day, the day before we would go on stage and say our part that I was told by the teacher, “We’re not going to have you say that part, after all. We think it would be more appropriate to use a black boy to say this part so we’re going to have Laron do it. But you still can be in it. You will take Laron’s part and you get to say the last line and that’s really important, too. You’re gonna say, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!'”

“But Laron can’t do it. He hasn’t practiced and I have.”

“Well, this is the way it has to be.”

So Laron got to read his part off a sheet of paper in his stumbling, inarticulate voice, but I learned something that day. That feeling that I had right at that moment taught me exactly what the man was talking about. I was by far and away the better person for the part, but the color of my skin was wrong and I knew it didn’t make any difference. I guess it was a defining moment for me because I could have gotten mad and hateful about it, but I believed those words was true. I knew those words were true and I knew that the very people that should have understood and applied them didn’t really know any more than anyone else.

I guess that it put what we commonly call a “conviction” in me. I become angry when I hear that there are those in this country who want to throw our history back to those dark ages by saying to employers, “You have to employ this percentage of people of this color and this percentage of people of this race and this percentage of this gender.” Are we supposed to believe that there are no qualified individuals in these groups? People of this color/race/religion/gender cannot normally get a job like this? It is too high or hard or requires too much intelligence for them to get it on their own. Why doesn’t this offend people? “Well, your college cannot get this money because you don’t have enough of the right type of people…” The right type of person should be the one who has worked hard to get good enough grades to get there.

Racism and hate should not be allowed to undermine morality and hard work.

The Good Book says, “…He giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth…”

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