I began this post long ago in the days just following the murder of George Floyd and since that beginning it’s been subject to a score of rewrites and questions. Part of the reason is that I’ve felt the need to really get this right. The other part, maybe the greater part, is that it’s not an easy thing to admit to six decades of apathy. This is a personal story, one of avoidance and indifference, a story that should resonate with much of white America even if much of white America chooses to deny it. I’ve always considered myself a liberal and yet for most of my life I’ve avoided an open discussion of race and racism. Indifference, it’s a virus that’s not uncommon to the liberal white community. Excuses are easy to come by. If I’m not being discriminated against then how I could I possibly have a proper perspective? What could I possibly add to the discussion? What could I possibly know or say about racism if I’m not subject to it? And then of course there’s the old, “I don’t see color” or just plain, “I’m not racist.” The problem with the rationalizations is that being a part (even an unwilling part) of the group (white America) that’s doing the discriminating carries with it an obligation and moral charge to acknowledge racism and speak out. Maybe it’s just that I’ve been too damned intimidated by the topic. It’s part of that triumvirate that we avoid; race, religion and politics, right? And so this isn’t a story that I take pride in relating, but it’s a story that has to be told. It’s a story that’s demanded of white America because the fight for racial justice won’t be won until white America speaks out. It’s like the twelve steps. You have to acknowledge the problem before you can begin to solve it. As journalist Don Lemon asserts in the title of his podcast, Silence is Not an Option.
When I started this I had some vague notion of where I wanted it to go but no true direction. That’s until I heard a sports talk show in which one of the hosts said , “Race was never an issue.”
Race was never an issue. Now, I don’t mean to say that race wasn’t an issue in a universal sense. In the context of American society as a whole in the 1950’s and 60’s, race was very much an issue. It just wasn’t an issue where I grew up. And yes I was living in America; comfortable, white, suburban America. My cozy childhood corner of the nation was in the hills west of the town of San Mateo, about 20 miles down Highway 101 from San Francisco. It bears repeating that in my own little slice of America race was not an issue.
Up the highway in San Francisco, race was an issue. Across the bay in Oakland, race was an issue. It was even something of an issue in eastside San Mateo where most of the community’s Black population called home – “the other side of the tracks,” is how the saying went.
East San Mateo was only a few miles from home. About a twenty minute drive down winding Parrott Drive, past uber-rich and ultra-conservative Hillsborough, down to the flats near the bay and the city dump. That’s where society tends to install the poor and people of color; near landfills, in the shadow of smoke stacks or in areas that the powers that be put at the bottom of the public works budget. The eastside was only a few miles away but for those of us in the hills it could just as well have been five thousand miles. For those of us “safely” sheltered in the white hills of suburbia, race wasn’t much more than kitchen table conversation, “Did you see on the news where the negroes in Detroit have been rioting?”
How could race NOT be an issue when it was THE issue on so many of America’s urban streets, in southern towns, in the papers and on television? How could that be? Well, when the only race to speak of in the neighborhood was white. Schools didn’t offer much in the way of diversity. If there were any children of color in my elementary school besides a smattering of Asian kids they certainly slipped by me.
High school was hardly an introduction to diversity. Just as a reality check, I recently dusted off my high school yearbook, flipped through the pages and counted ten Black students – in the whole school and none in my graduating class. Granted there was the junior college just up the street from my house. The College of San Mateo had a population with some measure of diversity but that was an enclave unto itself with a transient population; there during the weekdays, only to disappear back into their own communities come Friday afternoon.
My friends and I were the sons and daughters of the men and women recently returned from World War II, returning heroes reaping the benefits of the G.I. Bill. After World War II, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, as the G.I. Bill was officially known, allowed veterans to complete their education or get low interest mortgage loans. The bill helped to build suburbia and educate young men and women. It literally changed the face of America – white America.
The face of Black America remained as it had been for decades. It was a sad, yet angry face, the face of a people who had served their country and been deserted, left marginalized and unappreciated as the G.I. Bill was shepherded through Congress by segregationist legislators who made certain that the bill would conform to Jim Crow. Black veterans need not apply.
The houses in the hills looking over San Mateo were of the sprawling ranch style. They sat on big lots, well groomed and sporting emerald lawns. There were two cars in every garage and two martinis every evening, sipped leisurely while the steaks sizzled on the grill. Our neighborhood issues were crabgrass and gophers. No want, no segregation, no strife and certainly no Blacks. It was white privilege before “white privilege” was a thing. There was a sort of underlying sympathy for the plight of African-Americans but our understanding for that plight had its limits. The boilerplate of suburban white America went something along the lines of, “I haven’t got a racist bone in my body and I don’t have anything against negroes, but…” The “but” usually led up to something about being patient; “The negroes have to be more patient,” as if 400 years of patience wasn’t enough.
There may not have been racist bones but it’s what’s in the hearts and minds that matter and this was a time and a place in which, bones notwithstanding, a Black family moving into the neighborhood would’ve raised some eyebrows, might have sparked a petition and most certainly would have led to the real estate agent being ostracized.
Racism? It was that thing that we watched on the nightly news. We were appalled by scenes of Black protesters being held at bay with fire hoses or having German Shepherd dogs loosed on them, but our anger never ventured much beyond the living room and was usually abated an hour or so later when it was time to watch The Ed Sullivan Show.
If there’s been a paucity of discussion in the white community about racism today, it was a barely audible whisper during the heyday of American suburbia. Unless it was in the safety of the dining room race was a topic best left alone. A kid asking mom or dad about race was almost as disconcerting to the parents as asking “Where did I come from.” Looking back, the subject was so taboo that it’s hard to say what the neighbors thought about race.
One guy stood out because he was rooting for the wrong team. Doug, the man who lived across the street and a few houses down had been a bombardier during the war. Doug was a burly guy, a meter reader for Pacific Gas and Electric and in 1968 he decorated his car with a George Wallace for president sticker.
George Wallace. He was the Governor of Alabama and a poster boy for southern segregation. In his 1963 inaugural address Wallace proclaimed “Segregation today! Segregation tomorrow! Segregation forever!” In 1965 in Selma, on what came to be known as “Bloody Sunday”, Wallace set the state troopers onto peaceful protesters that included future Congressman and civil rights icon, John Lewis.
I remember dad sneering about Doug, the guy down the street, “He’s a Wallace guy,” as if Doug carried a disease, which of course he did. Even as a kid I recognized that there was something shady about being a Wallace guy. It was my dad who influenced my political leanings and who triggered my intense interest in politics. I guess the latter is to the chagrin of my wife, family and a lot of my friends. I can be annoying, aggressive, blunt and shameless when it comes to politics. It’s a family trait.
In the presidential election Wallace ran as an independent, carried five states and came close to forcing a brokered election in the House. He ran under the slogan “Stand Up for America,” a rallying cry that has a familiar ring in these MAGA days. Hard to believe that in 2016 America did what it failed to do in 1968, send a racist to the White House.
Still when it came to the fight for racial justice the sixties showed promise. Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech,” LBJ worked the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act through Congress, protests against injustice jammed city streets from coast to coast. Even Nixon did his part, making inroads in favor of school desegregation.
Muhammad Ali, never at a loss for words when it came to the ring, waxed eloquently and as Ali was wont to do, waxed loudly about the Vietnam War and racial inequality. I was 13 when Ali refused to be inducted into the Army. “My conscience won’t let me go shoot my brother, or some darker people, or some poor hungry people in the mud for big powerful America,” said Ali of the Vietnam War. “And shoot them for what? They never called me nigger, they never lynched me, they didn’t put no dogs on me, they didn’t rob me of my nationality, rape and kill my mother and father. … Shoot them for what? How can I shoot them poor people?”
Later that same year sports and race mixed again as in the weeks leading to the Summer Games to be held in Mexico City a number of American Black athletes threatened a boycott. It all bubbled over when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised black gloved fists on the medals podium as the national anthem was played. None of this played well in white America. Imagine the Kaepernick outrage multiplied many times over.
In April of 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and America once again erupted in protest. Two months later Robert F. Kennedy, ostensibly on his way to the White House was shot and killed. This all might have created the tipping point. Might have but didn’t. Two assassinations, a year of protests, the Olympics and a recent history of some legislative justice and all that white America could muster was a harrumph before letting the moment slip away.
Race was an issue in 1968 until it got lost somewhere in changing news cycles and other issues, most notably the Vietnam War.
When I came of draft age in 1971 race was the last thing on the minds of me, my friends and our families. We were all consumed with worry over our draft lottery numbers and preparations for induction or college or a trip to Canada to avoid service. My number didn’t come up and the war mercifully came to an end. It was a war in which the poor and men and women of color carried most of the freight.
The 1970’s and environmental awareness became the new thing that kept racial justice on the back burner in white suburbia. The story of the day went that the Black community didn’t concern itself with the environment, a story that’s resurrected to this day with little basis in fact.
What’s changed in the decades since? Sadly, up until this summer not much. Racism becomes an issue when it’s “newsworthy;” an out of control cop, a couple of vigilantes who don’t know it’s no longer 1930, the outing of a white supremacist politician, an alt-right demonstration complete with guns or a burned church heating up the news cycle until the embers go cold.
Racism becomes an issue for the white community at large when it’s so egregious that it’s slapped the entire world in the face or when it becomes an annoyance; racial inequality dominates the news cycle, athletes take knees, city life is disrupted by a march, a freeway is blocked by protesters and high school kids boycott school. I remember early 2016 and my anger over a BLM protest that had closed the Bay Bridge and forced me to detour to another bridge to cross the bay and pick my wife up at the airport.
Following George Floyd’s murder earlier this year protests blocked city streets and some local freeways. I remember remarking to my wife, “You know I was pretty pissed off at that sort of thing when I had to pick you up at SFO. Now I get it. If this is what it takes, then this is what it takes.”
Back in the 1960’s Eldridge Cleaver said, “There is no more neutrality in the world. You either have to be part of the solution, or you’re going to be part of the problem.” (The shortened popular version goes, “If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”).
I was a senior in high school when I read Eldridge Cleaver’s book Soul on Ice. At the time Cleaver was prominent in the Black Panther Party. I don’t know that I was particularly moved by the book. To be honest, I probably read it because I was trying to be the white liberal pandering to what was then the more radical edge of the civil rights movement of the time. Something hip for a liberal high school student. I still wasn’t part of the solution though. (Ironically towards the end of his life Cleaver dabbled with various religions from evangelism, to Sun Myung Moon’s Cult to the Mormonism. Before his death, Cleaver became a conservative Republican).
Six decades later Cleaver’s sentiment is repeated in the title of journalist Don Lemon’s podcast, Silence is Not an Option and in the Oakland Mural pictured below.
“If you aren’t part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” What are we waiting for?
This is my story but there are millions more like it in white America. Different versions of the same story that span decades. Race was never an issue because we didn’t want it to be. It was too awkward to take on. We were only affected when it was unavoidable, on the news or when a protest inconvenienced us. Otherwise it was less important than the baseball standings. We’ve been admonished by the victims of racial injustice that white America has to speak up and speak out. It’s not an invitation, or a plea or a granting of permission. White America has been issued a challenge.
To be continued…