Text Book Racism
By David Glenn Cox
Sometimes you must let these ideas incubate inside of you; these are ideas which have been with me most all of my life. They were ideas just percolating under the surface, just under the skin, so to speak. I was born towards the end of the 1950’s and my early days were spent in a lily white, baby boomer suburb outside Chicago. There were no black people there none, zip, nada.
When we would watch television inside this white bubble, I saw no black people on TV with the exception of Louis Armstrong or Sammy Davis Junior. Because of this, I had no understanding of race in America, none, zip, nada. I was still a small child when I saw Martin Luther King on television, in front of the Lincoln Memorial and the power of his voice moved me. I felt as if I were hearing the voice of god himself.
My parents were both children of the Great Depression and my mother was a Catholic and I remember her explaining to me about the civil rights movement by saying, “the same people who don’t like those people because of their color don’t like you because of your religion.” It was a very simple concept even for a child to understand, the internal belief in the superiority of one group over another because of their beliefs or the color of their skin or both. My parents were both great liberals and supporters of the civil rights movement but still they had no contact with black people, none, zip, nada.
In 1965, we moved to Montgomery Alabama. We lived in a lily white settled neighborhood and the only black people I saw there were the maids walking to the bus stop along towards evening. When we would go shopping downtown I would see black people but had no contact with them. They were not cashiers or employed in positions where they would have contact with the public. But I remember one day seeing a baby doll for sale in a store and it was a black baby and I still remember thinking what great idea that was. Obviously, black children would want to play with a baby doll that looked like them.
Montgomery pried open my ignorance about race, we went to the movies at a theater downtown and I saw a balcony and being a precocious ten year old boy the lure was almost irresistible. How cool, I thought it would be to watch the movie from up there in the balcony, but no matter how hard I searched, I could not find the stairs. Finally, I asked the usher, “Where are the stairs to the balcony?” He answered abruptly, “The balcony is closed.”
His answer did not explain to me where the stairs were and it was years before I discovered that the stairs were located on the outside of the building almost like a fire escape and offering no access to either the snack bar or to the restrooms. The balcony had been closed by a presidential executive order which banned segregation in public places.
This was the same executive order which prompted Montgomery city officials to close and destroy all of the cities public swimming pools. The officials had used city funds, equipment and employees to fill these pools in and cover them over with asphalt rather than to share them with its black citizens. The local public library was having a book sale and so we went looking to find some good books. Most of the books in the sale were text books because at this time the state and county did not supply free text books. The text books had to be purchased each year by the student’s parents.
This wasn’t your head on fill in the swimming pools type of racism but a more subtle economic racism. Of course, since blacks couldn’t be hired into better paying jobs it was more difficult for them to be able to afford to educate their children. My parents were conscious of what was going on in Montgomery and so when Martin Luther King led the march from Selma to Montgomery down Hwy 80 my parents loaded us up in the car and we went to see the march. I saw a lot of black people and a lot of cops but understood little about voter’s rights.
We moved back to Chicago in 1967 and I attended a junior high school with 1,200 students and of that number only two of the students were black. I had no idea of how to relate, it wasn’t that I disliked them or hated them. I just didn’t understand in those tumultuous times how to break through the barriers which divided us. It was due mainly to my own self imposed fear based quarantine, for no good reason what so ever I was afraid of them. They were different from me, strange and alien and I was an ignorant little white boy. For all my liberal ideals of equality and of teaching the world to sing in perfect harmony, I was a fraud.
Circumstances placed me back in Montgomery in 1973 and this time I was attending a high school where half of the students were black. A school named after the President of the Confederacy which had only been integrated for three years before my arrival. These black people were so different in my eyes, their clothes were different and their hair was different and to a great degree I couldn’t understand their Southern black English which led to a lot of nodding my head and answering “un huh” no matter what I was asked.
Gradually, my fear diminished and just as gradually my dislike for a lot of the white population grew. Many of the whites, both adults and children were coarse and ugly in their speech and attitudes towards the black population. It became for me not so much a matter of race as a matter of civilization. Which side are you on? Are you going to live your life hateful and close minded or accepting and willing to learn from others?
I quickly learned that if your car broke down in Montgomery you had better hope that there were some black folks around because white folks wouldn’t stop to help a long haired white boy under any circumstances. I was living in a rough side of town and the battery in my car had died. My roommate was going to give me a jump and I had hooked the jumper cables to my car when a black man turned his car around in traffic and pulled up in front of my car and popped his hood latch and enabled me to get to work on time.
There was no conversation between us as I called out “thank you” and he just waved. I couldn’t buy a new battery until Friday and there he was the next day and the day after that to jump me off. He never asked for anything and he owed me as a white man in Montgomery Alabama nothing. As a teenager, I was traveling from Montgomery to Chicago on a train; I struck up a conversation with an older black woman taking her grandchildren back to their parents in Chicago.
This woman was the only person on the train to notice that I wasn’t eating. But what she did was more than to just offer me a sandwich because she allowed me to keep my dignity along with the sandwich as she explained, “The children won’t eat egg salad, would you please do me a favor and eat it so I don’t have to throw it away.” It was a small act of charity but to me it was near divine as this woman raised and reared in the Jim Crow south where text books weren’t free and white politicians would rather fill in public swimming pools before sharing them with black children saw only my hunger and not my race.
My thirty five years in the Deep South have given me hundreds of other instances where black people have been inordinately kind to me. Over the years I’ve had more trouble with white people than with black. I had as a customer in Montgomery who was a Tuskegee Airman, he told me stories of returning from Italy as a decorated veteran and being forced to stand on the train after it passed Saint Louis into the Deep South. It made me ashamed of this country as I asked, “Didn’t that make you angry?”
He smiled, “That’s they way things were then, they’re better now.” He was right of course, but then he was wrong as well. Barack Obama was elected the President of the United States but still, even as he finishes his first term the racism and racist remarks persist. I had left the Deep South for Minnesota and once again there weren’t many black people around and I found that I missed their community.
I visited Texas and a black cashier checked my groceries and I had to tell her “it’s just so nice to hear southern speech with its warm tones and friendly colloquialisms which have become so deeply ingrained into my own voice and vocabulary. I don’t see it as white guilt but of white understanding and this was all brought into sharp focus by the killing of Trayvon Martin.
Once again, I’m ashamed by the behavior of so many of my white brethren. I have seen and heard their outright racism shouted from the balconies of intolerance on anonymous internet boards but what’s more troubling, and even worse, is the subtle text book racism. The willingness suspend common sense and to make excuses for an obviously unjustified shooting of an unarmed teenager. It is a sickening behavior, it is appalling and I am reviled by it.
It makes me ashamed to be white as the other day I heard and older white man explain to his friends, “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with health care, its lawyers suing everyone” then as the subject changed to the shooting he added in the same breath, “Oh, we can’t tell what went on, but if the cops didn’t arrest him it must have been justified.” It is this subtle and pervasive racism, just under the skin which has been with us always in this country. An almost subliminal racism which implies if the victim is a black man he must have somehow deserved it.
The bigots and Klansmen types can easily be ignored because they so richly display the bankruptcy of their ideology with their own tongues. It makes them easy to distinguish and difficult to take seriously, but this subtle racism disguised as hoodies and questions of Trayvon’s character that is something else. If Trayvon Martin had been struck by lightening no one would ask what clothes Trayvon was wearing and no one would ask about his school record, but Trayvon wasn’t hit by lightening. He was shot and killed by a grown man, a grown man who identified Trayvon as black and suspicious and possibly on drugs to 911 operators.
I have heard George Zimmerman supporters make the claim that George Zimmerman isn’t a racist. I will accept that Zimmerman isn’t a segregated balcony racist, but instead to me he’s a text book racist. He wouldn’t shout the “N” word at school children attempting to desegregate a public school but he will instead mumble under his breath, “The ***** always get away,” because he feared and suspected anyone strange or different from himself. A teenager minding his own business eating Skittles and talking to his girlfriend appeared to George Zimmerman as a gang banger and as a threat. This is the modern day text book racist, rather than preaching racial superiority based on an ingrained fear we see the inverted version, a fear based racism based only upon ignorance and stereotype.
Frank Zappa once said, “I’m not black, but there’s a whole lots a times I wish I could say I’m not white.” Me too Frank, but what is most important is for those in the white community, who do care and who aren’t afraid, is to speak up and to not let the subliminal and pervasive modern text book racism to hold the floor and to control the dialogue. The victory of this modern text book racism is entirely dependent on what racism has always been dependent on, on good people remaining silent.