I was raised in a racist home, quite plain and simple. It did not particularly matter what ethnic background one was, most all were equally suspect. The “N” word was common, mostly from my father, my mother was not sufficiently aware of anything beyond her tiny world to have an opinion.
Mexicans were called “spics” and Jewish folks were well called Jews, but one was clear they were out to steal you blind. I recall once as a child i was sent to the corner market to pick up bread or something. I returned and gave the change back, and my mother realized I had been “shorted.” My father as I recall, referred to the store owners as “filthy jews.” I have no idea whether they were or not. Asians were uniformly referred to as “Japs.” Native Americans were “dirty.”
I have no clue where all this came from. I know of no family stories of any encounters with any of these peoples which turned out badly. I know of virtually no contact whatsoever in fact. But I can say that my fathers bigotry seemed not extraordinary among either family or neighbors. No one gasped in dismay or frowned in consternation at his language.
Of course this was always justified on the theory that only inferior people would let themselves get into such a fix. This properly applied to Blacks, Jews and Native Americans. They had all been overcome by the white Christian world, and this undoubtedly meant that whites were superior. This was simply a given. Nothing in any class in history I ever took up through high school ever dispelled this conclusion. Oh there were statements of the horror done, and how wrong it was, but the issue of inferiority/superiority was not delved into with any seriousness. Much of American history was based on our glorious triumphant “taking” of what we wished. Firmly ensconced in “survival of the fittest,” my social studies teachers made the basic assumption that this was the way of the world.
Still, there was a severe hierarchy of inferiority. Blacks were first on the list, and even friendship would be frowned upon. These things were not dictated, they were simply understood. Probably Asians were next, and Jews next. This may be simply the “foreignness” and unlikelihood of encountering any of these strange and different folks. Mexicans weren’t encountered in daily life either, and Native Peoples only at the lake up north where they owned the souvenir shop.
As far as i knew, there were nothing but Christians in my childhood. I recall no “others” at all. None. Not from grade school on up. Nary a one. We saw blacks of course, here and there, at the shopping center. I recall one day when I was perhaps 11 or so being with friends at K-Mart, then the bastion of the working poor. We kids were just wandering through the stores examining things, seldom buying anything. I recall an older black woman going through a table of some clothing articles. I recall saying something derogatory and using the “N” word. I recall her tightening mouth, but she uttered not a word. My friends laughed and pretended shock. But they laughed. My father would have been proud. I have never forgotten it all of my life, and I still cringe inside when i recall my vile behavior.
I never met a black person and talked to them until I was in junior college. There, in one of my business classes, I became friendly with a black girl. I felt oh so very modern and superior, having set aside my given prejudices and befriended this girl. I was shocked when she ignored me when I saw her in a hallway surrounded by other blacks. I think I probably took a step back in my new found open-mindedness. Later I got a kick out of announcing to my dad that I was study partners with a black guy at the library. He grimaced and grumbled, “just don’t think of bringing one home.”
All my roommates in college were white, and I would say that blacks were still more rare than usual on campus. But of course, I was in a new milieu. Racism was our parents, we were open-minded, modern, forward looking, inclusive, equality driven college kids. We were Utopian in outlook. We were getting ready to burn bras and declare utter equality for all. We were in the early 70′s and such things were “in.”
The same held true in law school. There were few blacks, but by then I was fully adoptive of my new found fairness to all. Of course one of my idols had been Bobby Kennedy, and his special closeness to the black community was something I could not ignore. There was only one other episode of which I was sorely ashamed during all this time, and I’m not sure I realized the shame of my behavior until years later.
I was in college, home on summer vacation and working at the unemployment office. One of my co-workers, a fine young guy who was also a college student, and I became friends. I think we were flirting a lot around the office as i recall, when we worked together that is. Certainly during lunch hour. For reasons I no longer recall, though I had a car and could have met him anywhere, I agreed that he could come over to the house. As I recall my dad and grandmother were both at the lake and I was “home alone.” I think I recall that he pushed to do this, perhaps testing my true “liberality.”
In any case, he did come over. I made sure the porch light was off, and I pulled all the drapes. I was desperate that no one see him and “report” back that a black person had been in the house. I don’t recall that we did much if anything but a little light necking. I don’t recall that anything further ever came of it, whether that was due to his intense recognition of how I had tried to “hide” him or that the summer ended soon after and we returned to our respective schools is anybody’s guess at this point.
My travels and struggles with racism took a long time to work themselves out, and in truth they did not until I was employed at the Defender Office in Detroit, working for a black man and with many other black attorneys. I learned a lot from Myzell and George, two of the biggest names in African American jurisprudence in Detroit. George’s dad was a US Representative after having been one of the first African American’s on the bench in Detroit Recorder’s Court. I had the privilege to practice before him before his retirement to politics and his was a keen legal mind. George III, his son and my co-worker was a friend, a short-time lover, and a great mentor to me as well.
In fact, I dated a number of black men during those years of the 70′s and early 80′s, and it was in some respects the “in” thing to do. One of my best friends, our office manager, ended up marrying a white guy whom I had worked with for years. There were other well known examples in Detroit of interracial couples. Two other colleagues of mine married after he, the black, successfully ran for judge. She and he were the “couple” not to be outdone. He was tall, muscular, handsome, and an excellent lawyer. She was simply one of the most beautiful women I had ever known, and one of the nicest too. Her clients adored her and with good reason. She was also an excellent attorney. They made a striking couple to be sure.
I recall during a time in my life some years later when finances were worrisome for me, that i felt the old call of racism. It is all too easy to blame one’s situation on high taxes fostered by “social programs.” And we all know who gets the benefit of those social programs don’t we? Certainly my experiences with Detroit did nothing to lessen any remaining threads of racism that certainly still inhabited my soul. My homes were violated any number of times by thieves. My cars were stolen. I represented for the most part a totally black clientele, and most of them were guilty, and as most criminal defendants are wont to do, the first means of attack when one hits the jail cell, is to blame the attorney.
No, I was to fight racism for a good many years. Detroit provided me the window into how upper middle class blacks lived and conducted their lives, but they also reinforced the usual stereotypes, expressed through my clients. Somehow, I managed to find my way through the morass and emerge I think relatively bigotry free. I don’t know, one still feels the prick of an old prejudice now and again. In this I recognize I am very normal. Few realize how deep seeded these feelings are, and often how very unaware we are of them. I suspect my adoption of Christianity had more to do with eradicating most of the remaining prejudices from my heart than anything else did. For that I am and will always be eternally grateful.