Why Is Racism Still a Part of America? Haven't We Grown?
Civil Rights Leaders Fought Against Racism
In the 1960’s people like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and many others fought and died for the civil rights of African Americans. For some reason, they felt that ALL people deserved equal rights. At that time African Americans were treated as second – maybe even third – class citizens. Some people still believed that they were no better than animals, and deserved to be treated as such. Luckily, civil rights leaders disagreed and fought to make changes – and changes were made.
Watts and Racism in the 1960s
In 1965, my parents lived in the Watts area of Los Angeles. It was unusual for them to live there, they were white. But it was what they could afford. They became friends with many of their neighbors. Some of their neighbors were wary of them – why were these white people living in their neighborhood? Why did they want to befriend them? But they soon learned, that my parents were good people – and not much different from them. When the riot began, my mother was home alone with my older sister who was a year old at the time. She was pregnant with me. My dad was away with work. Needless to say, Mom was worried. She felt safe among her neighbors, but she was worried about the rioters. They were burning houses and throwing stones and bricks. Blacks were attacking whites. My mother was afraid to leave the house. Her neighbors were safe – but there were many people around who did not know her. White people wouldn’t like her because they would view her living in this area as an insult against whites. African Americans would think she was in the neighborhood to cause trouble. Either way, she was in trouble and feared for her life and the lives of her children.
Afterwards, her neighbors came to her to make sure she was okay. They brought milk and food for her and my sister that would last until my dad came back home. They took care of her and she came to love her neighbors. And she began looking at things a little differently.
She had been raised in the south. Her parents would hire African-Americans to work their farm. Her parents weren’t rich, and couldn’t pay much, but they tried to treat their workers in the right way. Unfortunately the culture they were raised in taught them that these people were like hired animals and that you could treat them as such. Their workers were treated as well as their best livestock – but not much better than that. They were allowed to drink from the watering troughs, eat the leftovers from their meals and were allowed to sleep in the barn if they needed a place to stay. My grandparents felt they were treating their workers well, and would swear until their deaths that their workers were treated much better than other workers in their area. My mom grew up thinking that African-Americans were to be treated as well as the best livestock – but that you shouldn’t befriend them much more than the animals in the barn. Sure, you had your favorite animals – and you could have your favorite African-American, as well. But you couldn’t get too friendly, because, like any animal, you just really couldn’t trust them.
After living in Watts, my mother began to understand that her neighbors were people – people just like her. With feelings, and families, and homes that they were struggling to care for. She tried to bring her daughters up knowing this. She had to compete with our father, who was racist until he died, but she did a great job. We grew up knowing that the only difference between people was the color of their skin. Some people had more money, some had less. Some had bigger homes, some had smaller. Some had nicer clothes, some struggled to clothe their children. But all were people – and you treated all people the same –with common courtesy. If they treated you badly, you gave them a second chance. If they still treated you badly, you stayed away from them.
What Do You Think?
Does Racism Still Exist in Your Part of the World?
Racism in Wichita - 1970s
In the mid 1970’s, the race riots hit Wichita, Kansas. I went to the biggest junior high school in the city. It was at least three times the size of the average junior high school. And it was the most integrated of all the schools. Many white families did not like the fact that many African-American families were bussed into the school. And I’m sure there were just as many African-American families that were unhappy with the situation. There were fights every day at the school. It became a normal thing. If you were lucky, you could just walk by and not get involved in the fight. If you weren’t so lucky, you would get dragged into it – even if the only thing you wanted to do was to get to your next class. I was shy and quiet and just that little odd girl that everyone picked on anyway. I tried to avoid the main halls as much as I could. But sometimes those fights spilled into the side halls and I would get caught in the middle. I was hit, spit on pushed and shoved and tossed around like a rag doll. By both groups of people. But still, no matter what, I believed in the good of people. I wanted to see that people were really, truly good deep down in their hearts. That people were people. They didn’t deserve to get beat up just because they looked differently than most of the other people at the school. Maybe I felt this way because I was also the odd one. Maybe it was that faith in humankind that my mom tried to instill in us. Or maybe a combination of both of those things. Either way, I still wore my rose colored glasses and believed in the good in people.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X
"I Have A Dream" Martin Luther King, Jr.
This is my favorite part of the "I Have A Dream" speech by Martin Luther King, Jr. A portion of the speech I share with my students every year...
"I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of "interposition" and "nullification" -- one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers."
And when this happens, and when we allow freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual:
Free at last! Free at last!
Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
Racism Improves in WIchita
As I grew and matured, I learned that in Wichita, people became more and more accepting. Yes, neighborhoods were still segregated for awhile, but soon neighborhoods became integrated on their own. Where bussing was once needed to make sure that schools were integrated, it was allowed to stop because they became naturally integrated. Schools all over the district were updated and all schools were kept to the same high standards. In my view with my rose colored glasses, I believed that Wichita was a real life view of the world. That everywhere in America neighborhoods were just like the neighborhoods I knew about here in Wichita. That everyone treated their neighbors – regardless of color – with respect.
Ways to Do Away With Racism
But I have discovered that when I take off those rose colored glasses, things are different around this country of ours. In fact, things are different than I believed right here in Wichita. Things are worse than I thought. Racism exists still. Here in the heartland of America. And that it is even worse in parts of the south. Whereas I believe that people are people and should all be treated the same – others still feel that it is right to treat some people horribly just because the color of their skin. And that in some cases, things are worse than they have ever been, because it doesn’t just have to be the color of your skin. It can be the country you originated from. It can be your culture. It can be the way you believe.
What happened in this country? What happened to people treating people equally? What happened to this land of the free? Where all people are treated equal? Not just some people – not just the people who agree with what you say – not just those who have the same color skin or come from the same country – but ALL people are treated equal!
Why haven’t we progressed more than this? Why haven’t we become the world of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream? This is the 21st century! We, as a country, should have become better than this by now. There should be no reason that people are treated differently. We are all the same under our skin. We have the same basic needs – we need food, water, shelter – and want that for our families, as well. We all, at least for the most part, love our families and want what is best for them. We want our children to learn and be healthy. We want to believe that, overall, there is good in the world – that there is hope for our children and grandchildren. For the most part, we want to do good, we want to be good, we are willing to work for what is best for us, our families, our neighborhoods and our country. Underneath it all, we are all the same. So why must we fight? Why must we treat each other so poorly?
So what can be done to solve this problem? Well, we have to start from the smallest portion of society – the part we have the most influence on – our family. We can teach our children that people are the same. That all people need to be treated with dignity. That everyone deserves to be treated with respect. We teach our children that we work hard for what we want, and we help those who are truly in need. We give of our resources and we give of ourselves. Because we would want someone to help us out if we were truly in need. We teach our families that we are family and we take care of each other.
Then we spread to the neighborhood. We treat our neighbors with respect. Even those who haven’t treated us nicely. We give them another chance – and unless they become bullying or dangerous in any other way – we give them another chance. Until they realize you will not give up on them – that you believe they are good people.
Once that is done, we spread that same feeling of good will and love and respect to the city. Once it spreads throughout the city, we spread it to the state, and then the country.
Okay – I know it is really not that simple. I still have those rose colored glasses on. I still want to believe the best in everyone. But if every person in America could do this…it really could be this simple…