Many years ago, and in a very small way, I briefly experienced anger that sprang from racial conflict. The Monopoly video brought those long-lost feelings back to mind. Although my experience is in no way comparable, the feelings I remember may help me empathize with the feelings of anger expressed by the speaker in the Monopoly video.
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In the summer of 1964, the Republican party held its annual convention in San Francisco. They nominated Barry Goldwater to run for President against Lyndon Johnson. In the spring of that year, I was a junior in high school in a suburb of Oakland, California. When I was a toddler, my parents purchased a home in one of the first post-World War II housing tracts that emerged from the walnut orchards in the Diablo Valley, east of Oakland. In 1961, that tract and the schools, churches, and businesses that grew to support it, incorporated as the town of Pleasant Hill.
Race relations in that community were seen as progressive, although no African Americans and few Latinos lived there. The closest concentrations of non-whites were in the industrial towns of Pittsburg and Antioch along the Sacramento River Delta and in Oakland’s inner-city.
By the 1960s our entertainment had progressed from Disney’s Song of the South and Amos ‘n Andy to Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. The San Francisco professional football, baseball, and basketball teams featured African American and Latin American stars that we cheered. Popular music had progressed from what my grandfather called the “jungle music” of Harry James (!) to Sara Vaughn, Nat “King” Cole, and the many jazz greats of the time. The folk music revival of the 1960s shone spotlights on artists like Hudie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, Odetta, and Joan Baez as well as social justice advocates like Pete Seeger and the Weavers.
Segregation was a Southern problem. It was about voting rights. It was about integration.
You had to go to the South to protest. Southern governors and senators were intransigent, clinging to the discredited doctrine of Separate but Equal, the post-reconstruction Jim Crow laws, and voter suppression practices. We were unaware of conditions closer to home in Oakland, Pittsburg, and Antioch that were less overt but equally worthy of protest. That would soon change.
However, as the summer of 1964 approached, my high school social studies teachers came up with an outstanding educational project: a mock Republican convention. It would be held in our gym. Students would be assigned roles to play. We would get to know the inner workings of the American political system: how candidates for President and Vice President were chosen, how party platforms were developed, and the roles played by state conventions, primaries, and caucuses.
The role I was assigned was chairman of the Mississippi delegation. Unbeknownst to us students, our teachers had arranged another element of verisimilitude to our mock convention. They invited African American students from an inner-city Oakland high school to send delegations and challenge the Southern states’ credentials, especially Mississippi’s. What a surprise! Why couldn’t I have been assigned a state like Oregon? All my friends who was that state’s chair had to do was put into nomination its governor, “Mark, O for Outstanding, Hatfield.”
The role-play quickly became a competition for me that had to be won. The interlopers from Oakland wanted something that I had, that was legitimately mine. They must be beaten back. It did not matter that they were Black. They were faceless to me. My job was to organize and articulate a defense to repel them. I no longer recall the strategies and tactics I employed to mobilize the Mississippi delegation and to enlist others in our cause. I no longer recall the argument I made when I stood up as the rightful Mississippi chairman and addressed the convention. The plans and words were successful. The challenge was defeated. All I remember is the outrage.
This was a role play that took place over fifty years ago. It is nothing like the reality and depth of the pain that African Americans feel through systematic prejudice and “everyday racism.” However, I do still remember the feeling of “take no prisoners” outrage that propelled me to defend what I thought was rightfully mine. So while I am not privy to African Americans’ pain, I can understand that it is real. I must remember the feeling that was once inside me. There it waits till I feel threatened again. My challenge is to access that feeling and channel it, not to reciprocate, but to empathize.