Saturday, May 17, 2014

Looking Back and Moving Forward

Today, May 17th, is the 60th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. I was a junior in an all-white Virginia high school (there were no racially integrated schools in the South at this time) when the decision was announced. In my naivete, I thought there should be a celebration.

But there was no celebration. Instead Virginia politicians turned to fear-mongering against “mongrelization” and mounted a policy known as “massive resistance” to implementing the court’s decision. Using every political tactic at their disposal, including closing schools to prevent desegregation, Virginia’s politicians succeeded in delaying school integration until the late 1960s. One entire county, Prince Edward County, closed its public schools for five years rather than integrate. Here and in other areas of the state, private academies for white children sprang up but black children sometimes had no education at all. It was an ugly time in our history. Looking back now, I wonder how grown people could have acted so hatefully against children and against people they had known all their lives.

Even when I was a child, segregation never made sense to me. It went against everything my parents, my school, and my church taught me: love your neighbor as yourself, all men are created equal, respect everyone, liberty and justice for all. An old Sunday school song depicted a world quite different from the one in which I was living: “Jesus loves the little children, all the children in the world. Red and yellow, black and white, all are precious in his sight.” I felt I was getting mixed signals from these institutions and my community. When I asked why, nobody seemed to be able to give me an answer that made any sense. I felt I was getting simultaneous stop and go signals about how life should be lived.

Growing up on a farm, my brother and I played with the children of our black neighbors. We were friends. It was okay to play together in our yard, but we couldn’t express that friendship in public. We couldn’t go to school together; we couldn’t go to church together; we couldn’t go to the movies together.

The cultural mantra was “separate but equal,” but there was no equality in separation. I remember the “White Only” and “Colored Only” signs next to water fountains and on waiting room doors; the “White Only” and “Colored Only” sections of the local movie theater. Blacks weren’t allowed to sit at tables in the local drugstore/soda shop. Even the cemeteries were segregated. Did this mean heaven and hell were segregated? I felt that segregation made victims of both blacks and whites, that it limited freedom for all of us, though I knew I wasn’t humiliated and discriminated against as black people were. By the luck of the genetic draw, I was born white, but I would be no less me if I were black. Skin color was just another feature like eye or hair color. But segregation exploited skin color as an inborn badge of superiority or inferiority. Segregation said being black diminished a person's humanity, relegated a person to second-class status. But whites had done nothing to deserve their superior status. It didn't make any sense.

I didn’t understand how anybody calling themselves Christian could embrace segregation. Throughout my teenage years, I argued with my father, who was a devout Christian, on this point. Neither he nor my mother were racists. Like many other decent, well-meaning white southerners, they were born into the system of racial segregation, but they harbored no hatred of blacks. Indeed, there were some genuinely loving friendships between blacks and whites, especially between black and white women. But they were emotionally shackled by a system that required holding back feelings and avoiding openly embracing each other’s humanity. So there was intimacy and denial of intimacy – a system of wounded love. Always you had to be aware of how far you could go. The social taboo – the line that must never be crossed, on fear of death for black men – was interracial mixing – the great sexual bugaboo. Until 1967 when the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s law against interracial marriage as unconstitutional, mixed marriage was a felony in the state of Virginia and other southern states.

We’ve come a long way since 1954. Interracial marriage is no longer taboo, we have an interracial president who was raised by a single white mother and his white grandparents, and schools throughout the country are racially integrated though still segregated in many areas because of housing patterns. But we’re not in a post-racial society yet. Blacks still experience discrimination in job opportunities, housing, educational opportunity, access to medical treatment, and administration of justice. Black male children are especially at risk of racial hatred, such as the wanton murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, whose murderer was acquitted. Black male students in grades K-12 are nearly two-and-a-half times more likely to be suspended from school than white students. Young black men are stigmatized as criminals or potential criminals. According to the Center for American Progress, people of color are “ disproportionately incarcerated, policed, and sentenced to death at significantly higher rates than their white counterparts.”

So segregation is no longer legal but America still suffers from racism. Indeed, since President Obama’s election, racism seems to have surged particularly in the Republican Party. Legislation to hinder and limit the voting rights of African-Americans and other non-white minorities has been passed in various Republican-led states. Jim Crow has resurfaced under the guise of preventing so-called voter fraud. The journey to get beyond racial segregation that began 60 years ago with the Brown v. Board of Education decision hasn’t been completed yet. But I choose to believe we can overcome racism if enough people of good will speak out and remain vigilant. In some small pockets of the country, including many in the South, it has already happened quietly and peacefully.

1 comment:

B Eads said...

Let's not roll back the long, hard fought progress that has been made!

(B. Eads = B. Outlaw)