It is often said that experience is the best teacher and for me, that is a true aphorism…I learned about racism from one of the best…my father. I have to admit, he was an equal opportunity racist…he hated Blacks, Jews, Hispanics, Arabs…essentially anyone who didn’t look like him. He was born and raised in western South Dakota, he was a miner, and it was an all-white community he was raised in…few if any people of color and those were either Asian or Hispanic. I could probably count the number of non-whites in the community on one hand. He was a fan of Hitler and he was a drunk; often when he was drunk, he would walk around our small house with a Nazi salute and saying, Seig Heil. I had no idea what in the hell he was saying however it sure was an interesting experience.
When I was in middle school, we moved to Los Angeles…big culture change. I went to middle school in San Fernando Valley and yep, there Blacks, Hispanics, Orientals, et al…and they were really cool kids. I couldn’t reconcile the hate my father had with what I experienced with real people…it just didn’t work. When I was in High School, I had a Jewish friend. I couldn’t bring him to our house…better said, I wouldn’t bring him to our house because I knew how my father would refer to him.
I soon found out that the world of racism was much larger than my family home.
When I was 17, I enlisted in the Marines. Racial integration of the military was a recent event…probably 10-12 years earlier. We had 6 or 7 black men in our platoon and they were targeted by the Drill Instructors. I saw it and it was an impactful time for me. I saw overt racism, and I saw young black men who said, “I will not let you beat me”. They had my respect and ultimately, earned the grudging respect of the Drill Instructors.
At 18, I was shipped off to Okinawa for a tour of duty with the fleet. We had black Marines in our Company and several of them were friends…close enough friends that we would go on liberty together. One friend had been accepted to the Naval Preparatory School as a precursor to going to the Naval Academy. To be accepted to this program, you had to be damn smart and an outstanding Marine…he was both. One night on liberty outside the base…it must have been around 2200, we were accosted by a group of drunk white Marines who were yelling racial insults, throwing rocks and threatening to beat our asses. Fortunately, we could run faster than they could. That incident was an important lesson to me on the challenges black Marines faced. No, we didn’t stop going on liberty together…we just knew where we ought not go.
I was a young Marine stationed Detroit in the mid-’60s, I saw the riots firsthand, I watched the city burn, I saw National Guardsmen positioned on the federal courthouse manning 50 caliber machine guns. I was at Camp Pendleton…I saw the Watts riots. I lived the black power activism in the Military, and I had to deal with it.
In 1972, on a port call en route back from Viet Nam, we stopped in Subic Bay in the Philippines. I was a pretty salty 1stLt…having received a commission while serving in Viet Nam and I had been around. The town outside of Subic was Olongapo and it was the wild west personified. To steal a line from Alice’s Restaurant, you could get anything you want at Olongapo…including Alice. A couple of friends and I were wandering around the town, watching the antics of the Marines and Sailors and we took a turn down a street we had never been on. A very large black guy approached us and said, “you’re new here aren’t you”. I said, “Yep, we are.” He said, “take my advice, don’t go down that street…we own it”. I listened to the man. Another lesson for me…the man protected us…he didn’t have to.
I retired from the Marine Corps in 1981 and we moved to Richmond Virginia (the former Capital of the Confederacy that still has deep roots.) We built our first home and our realtor was a Richmond “blue blood.” I was a Division head for a large corporation and had a number of black employees. One became a good friend as well as his wife and daughters. He was looking to buy a house and I offered to help. I told him about our realtor and offered to contact him to see if he would work with them. So, silly me, I called the realtor, told him what I wanted him to do. He asked what my friend’s name was…I told him, and he said “no, I don’t think I want to work with these folks”. The trigger? It was a black name. I just said thanks and hung up…never talked to the guy again.
I can’t see white America through the eyes of a black American and I haven’t walked one inch in their shoes, but have I have seen firsthand what racism is, and, to a small extent experienced it. It is ugly, it is painful, and it is downright wrong.
For over 145 years White America has been talking about racial equality and we still just don’t get it. It is not about words, it’s about action. How many times do white Americans need to get hit upside the head with a 2×4 before they get the message that they need to change? Trust me, we’re not going to get many more chances at getting it right.