10 September, 2013

Impeach Earl Warren

I wrote this a year go, but after screening the film The Butler this weekend, I was reminded of it.

It's hard to be certain what triggers a memory. In this case it may have been something to do with disability discrimination or perhaps a billboard sign, but I think it was the disrespect that is so often directed at President Obama, disrespect that is so clearly racial in its underpinnings. Some may not even realize that this is what drives their behavior, but I have no doubt.

I grew up in the South, born in Virginia. My mom was born in Arkansas. My two namesakes, a grandfather and an uncle, were born in Georgia and in Arkansas, respectively. At the same time I have spent the last two-thirds of my life living in the North - which harbors just as much racism as the South, by the way, and in some ways it's worse.

I had hoped we, as a country, were further along the road to diversity equality than we are. It hurts. I saw so much ugliness growing up, and I want it to disappear forever.

After retiring from the pulpit in the late 50s, my maternal grandparents moved into a home in Little Rock only a few blocks from Central High, although a couple of years after the integration crisis. I can remember seeing large roadside billboard signs shouting "Impeach Earl Warren." Warren was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court that unanimously decided Brown v. Board of Education.

Those signs are the old dormant memory that was triggered, and it's been on my mind of late. As a third grader, I never got much of an answer when I wondered aloud what the signs were about. My parents sheltered me, I guess, from racism, but perhaps from other races as well. My brother has always asserted that my parents moved us to Virginia Beach rather than Norfolk to avoid a growing black population. Schools were one step beyond separate but equal, and you chose which one you wanted to go to. Except when there was little choice, whites preferred to stay in white majority schools and blacks in black majority schools. Voluntarily.

That separation was clearer in Virginia Beach of that era. In fact, it's remarkable that I never shared classroom space with a black student until I started teaching college in Utica. That's after twelve years of public schooling (scattered among three states), four years of college, and five years of graduate school. It wasn't by choice.

In the late 60s, I saw a fraternity brother jump out of his chair and cheer when he learned of the shooting of Martin Luther King, Jr. and another brother make it clear that he would blackball any prospective pledge who was black - not the terminology that was used, by the way.

Ugh. There is more to dredge up but no reason to. I know racism when I see it - no matter how subtle it is, no matter how much in denial is its owner. It runs far deeper that I thought though, and the way our president is treated is evidence of that. Perhaps the next generation will be the one to make a difference. In the meantime, I shall continue to do my part and question verbally those whose words or actions are racist or discriminatory. As I observe my polarized country today, my head tells me it's going to get worse before it gets better. Sigh.

What will it take for us to accept finally that diversity - in each of its forms - is not a threat and, in fact, makes us stronger?