words about things

What follows is my subtle attempt at honesty.

Please don’t assume I’m racist like you. I’m my own kind of bigot.

Get over yourself uber-progressives, everyone is a little bigoted especially when it comes to race. It’s an evolutionary response to the idea that at some point in your life you’d rather screw than eat. We are designed to miss sleep to achieve the goal of passing on our genes. If we can’t pass on our own genes, we are evolutionarily designed, to encourage the passing on of genes close to ours. I know it’s more complex than that but I wanted to start with something hard and cold and unlike the rest of the post.

Let’s get on with it.

I’m sure someone will disagree with me, but my father was one of the least racist people I ever met. He never displayed any racial compulsions or fears. For example, the only time I ever heard him use the N-word was while quoting a Tarantino film. He just didn’t seem to judge people by that metric. If he was alive today I’d sit him down and pick his brain to get more details about how he turned out this way; instead I have to draw a few of my own conclusions based on my memories and his old stories.

He was born in the early 1950’s to an incredibly poor family in the Midwestern United States. He grew up in a small rural area where everyone was just about the same kind level of poor. There were no black people, no Latin-American people, no Native-American people, in fact no non-white people of any type living in his county. Most people in this area where descended from a handful of European countries, had moved o this area after the civil war and shared just a couple of Protestant religions. (My father also turned out to be pretty agnostic which might be a different story). I have met old men who grew up in this same area and there is definitely racism there so why didn’t it fester in my father? His explanation was that poverty was a great equalizer. Grandma had told him something about everyone having to work just to grow enough food and earn enough money to keep their families together. Maybe my dad thought the whole world beyond his little rural town was like that.

When my father was a teenager, his father did what many men have done every generation for thousands of years. He left his wife and kids to fend for themselves; he found himself another woman and started another family. I’m sorry, Norman Rockwell, but it happened in post-WWII America and particularly among the poor. Grandma did the best she could and eventually found a good guy who married her and moved the few kids she still at home to a neighborhood in North West St Louis (not far from the now infamous Ferguson). This is the mid 1960’s and St Louis is not some small town full of toe headed truck drivers and pig farmers. It was, however, a town whose population was growing and changing. I had a hard time finding reliable, complete census information but the gist of it is white people far outnumbered black people through the 1980’s in the city. From 1950 to 1960 the population of white people grew dramatically in the city and surrounding areas. By the 1970’s, white population growth had slowed while the black population had exploded (still only a % of the white population). Then came the 1980’s, the economy changed, the jobs changed and the neighborhoods changed. White flight sent the middle class white people running out of the city and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) created brand new ghettos in what had been previous defined as “working class neighborhoods”. Today the city is 49.2% black and 46.6% white. There’s a lot more to say about this topic than I have time or qualification so let’s get back to the story.

My white-as-linen, poor farm boy father now lived in a city in the 1960’s with a population of black people descended from slaves who were sold in a market not far from where he went to school. You would think that this place and time must have been teaming with racial tension. Surely he’d pick up some racist tendencies now. Right? Society and the racial charged atmosphere will force it in to him! Right? The stereotypical behavior of the black people will teach him that “they” are not like “us”? Right?

(Pause for context) Some of the most overtly racist people I’ve ever met love to tell stories about ill treatment or injustice they suffered at the hands of “those people”. The typically racist has a never ending supply of stories about how “they all act like that”. My father’s stories about going to high school in St Louis and interacting with black people in the 1960’s were always positive. He went to great concerts and parties. He got to see great black performers like James Brown perform live in local venues. He loved it and it shaped his idea of culture, music and community. He got to hang out with cool people who all graduated high school and got jobs. His new “working class” life was a huge step up from poor-as-shit-daddy-left-us life in the Ozarks. He never said one bad word to me about anyone from that time in his life regardless of their skin color. (He rarely said bad things about anyone in particular and if he did, you better believe he meant it).

His senior year of high school, my dad was working attending school in the morning, working at a gas station in the afternoon and working on an assembly line at night. Luckily for him Vietnam was going on and both his brothers were already over there so, what the heck, he joined the Army and spent the next 18 years loving that too. (My dad was a pretty positive person.)

This brings me to the super simple story of how my father introduced me to the idea of “race”. When I was, maybe, 4 years old we were at some military function when I saw the blackest man I had ever seen. Incredibly black skin like nothing I’d ever experienced. He didn’t look real. I don’t know if I just stared or if I said something but my dad pulled me aside and explained that no one in the army was white or black or any other color except green which is why they all wore green uniforms. He would tell me that over and over for decades. When I went to school I had pretty much the same experiences with both white and black kids. When I started to develop prejudices (we all do it, think of it as warning flags we use to make defensive decisions) they didn’t form down racial lines. I looked at bad experiences and saw patterns in the people related to those experiences. If I had wanted to be racist I could have said that I had problems with a higher percentage of black people than white people. But that percentage was not an accurate representation of the problems. I got bullied by white kids who acted just like the black kids who bullied me and do you know what I noticed? The white kids who bullied me were all loudly racist. (For that matter, so where the black kids.) I also had problems with kids from upper-middle income families, kids who were religious, kids who were better looking than me, etc, etc. I was “weird” so I had to deal with everyone as a potential problem. It really never made sense to judge someone on the color of their skin since it takes several cues to give you an idea about their character. I should note, having written that sentence that I have always hated, and still hate being judged by my appearance. Poor people have to work for a living. We get dirty and we mess up our clothes and we can’t throw all our money away on flashy vehicles. But try getting a date with a pretty girl with that reality in your pocket.

I am getting off topic. I woke up this morning and had to write this because yesterday I was reminded of what racism looks like. It looks like the racist guy who assumes you agree with him. My 68 year old, white boss from Mississippi asked me a political question and when my answer didn’t fit with what FOX news had told him he got really confused and tried to make a point about Donald Trump and black people. He launched in to a full 5 minutes of stories about “how black people act” “can you believe it?”

I have been digesting what he said, how he said it, how he tied it to political candidates, social groups and what he assumed I would agree with. The look on his face turned frantic when he realized that I couldn’t see what he’s talking about. He sees a nation of black people who all have the same agenda because they are black. Skin color is enough. He sees Mexican guys working in welding shops because they are Mexican. Right? That’s got to be it, right? It’s because they are that color or that race. “Those people” are “all like that”. Right? (pause for context again)

It is heart breaking to me because there will never be a way to show a guy like that anything different. Something formed in him growing up that my father avoided. To see that all people can be all things and their limitations are really just illusions. They are strong illusions. We accept what our families believe. We modify our behavior to fit into our communities. We latch on to industries and programs that get us through this life. We segregate and separate ourselves into something akin to tribes with every chance we get because our ancestors did it and this behavior got us this far.

I guess our current election cycle may be a perfect example of people being unwilling to realize that they are strongly biased. A recent pew research report actually used the words “political tribes” to describe American’s current bi-partisan state.

I’ve talked before about how most of the people I know over the age of 55 are absolutely inconsolable about the “state of the nation”. Once 9/11 happened they started watching news all day every day. Then when Obama was elected they took breaks from the news to post on facebook how the whole country was screwed. If you had asked me back then what the issue was I would have said something like “They are all fully invested in the idea of Reagan Republicanism and Obama is as far from that as we’ve seen.” But yesterday, for just a moment, I saw a thick vein of racism running through a lot of those people and it made me feel bigoted towards them.

I guess being bigoted towards bigots beats the alternative. Wait didn't I say everyone was bigoted at the beginning of this article? Damn.