The Multi-Coloured Coat
September 11, 2007

I grew up in Texas in the 70s and 80s. I was in first grade during the time period that the movie Dazed and Confused covers. It was the age of Free to Be You and Me and, so far as a little kid could tell, the battle for civil rights was over. Blacks (no longer referred to as "them coloreds") were equal in the eyes of anyone. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a martyred hero who had, through that martyrdom, won.

Of course, I was completely wrong about much of that, but I thought that the time for marching not just for civil rights, but marching against hatred and prejudice, was over.

I was, of course, terribly naive. But what seven year old isn't? By the time I was 13, I realized that I had only been to school with one black child. And I began putting more details together. My mother locked her car doors if a black man was on a street corner. Regardless of what he was wearing/looked like. My father dropped the N-word in regard to Differen' Strokes (and yet he loved Sanford and Son). I still strongly suspect that he did at least a brief stint in the Klan. I was removed from one junior high school and placed in another ... purportedly because the second school had a higher level math class that I could take for only one semester out of the three I had left. In retrospect, this move feels much like my change of schools for second grade ... in junior high, I was fast becoming best friends with Paula. A black girl. In second grade, my teacher was black. And, worse, Austin was preparing to begin busing.

In both cases, my mother thought she was protecting me. She was in the very difficult position of having tried, by her own admission, to raise her children without prejudice ... and yet being unable to let go of those old habits herself. In talking to her about this later, she admitted that she was afraid that whatever the other results of busing, she just knew that if some of the kids (or even the adults) got into an argument, a fight ... that I would be right there in the thick of it, attempting to create peace. And probably getting hurt. Reflecting on who I was back then, I think she was probably correct. It wouldn't have mattered to me who had started it nor even, really, what it was about. I was outspoken about what I felt was right. If a white person picked on a black; or a black person picked on a white, I would have been defending the picked on and trying to make peace.

Even in the case of the junior high move, she had pointed out that some of the kids at the school might call me an N-lover for being friends with Paula. I snorted and said, "So? I don't care what people like that think." This time, she was even more wrong for moving me as there really wasn't that kind of racial tension in the school. I'm not saying that everything was always perfect between the white kids and the black kids ... but simply being friends with someone from the "opposite camp" was not really going to fuss anyone.

And then I began to open my eyes to the wider community, not just the small one that I inhabited. I saw incidences of prejudice in Texas, in the South. I fussed to myself. Why were people not doing something about this. I had announced in junior high that if there were civil rights marches, I would be there. Oh how that must have just terrified my mother.

I was discussing the issue of prejudice and violence in the south and in the north with someone last night and I said that I had seen more and worse events here in the North than I had ever seen in Texas. That's personally seen, not just read newspaper stories of. Although, come to think of it, I think I've seen more of that here in Indiana than I did in Texas as well.

Much of it here has revolved around how so much of the black community has been pushed into the worst areas of town. The gangs run rampant on that side of town. Here, two towns essentially run together and it can be very difficult to tell where South Bend ends and Mishawaka begins. And I can't count the number of times I have heard someone from Mishawaka say they could never live in South Bend ... because of the gangs ... because of the "black troubles."

I've observed black people being waited on last. I about got my head bit off for telling my waitress someone else was there first. And I got the same kind of service that the black family got for my trouble. A dear friend in grad school told how she and her husband were thrown out of Sears - for trying to get the repair center to honour their warranty. After less than 2 weeks, her new vacuum cleaner had broken. She took it in. Her husband waited, in the manner of most people ready to be done with a chore and off to the more interesting things of the day, slouched against a wall, waiting for her to be done.

The clerk told her nothing could be done. She produced receipt. She produced warranty. The clerk merely produced more anger. Finally, the clerk called security. Not to deal with my friend, who was a seriously PISSED off ex-drill sergeant by this point. No, to escort her husband out of the building and to ban him from Sears. For intimidating the clerk. You know, by freaking standing there.

There was the piling on of cops and pepperspray for the one black guy who tried to lift a pack of cigarettes. (Turns out he stole nothing. It was a mistake ....)

And my God, but the Klan is active here ... they terrify me and infuriate me all at once. My friends have tried on more than one occasion to make sure I am otherwise occupied when there's a rally in the area. (If for no other reason than they're tired of hearing me rant.)

So, today I know that my childhood belief that Martin Luther King, Jr. had won, is indeed not true. Some civil rights are more protected than they once were. But you can't legislate attitudes, and legally protecting things that simply should be ... creates equal and opposite pushes. Sometimes I think for every person like me who arises from that time period, we have ten who feel they were wronged by the legislation.

There are so very many ways that people can be different. And we as a society seem hell-bent on repeating the past. "The problem with the Irish immigrant is they are lazy, heathen, fighting is in their very physical make-up. They're little better than animals." Then it's the Italians. The Jews. The blacks. Gypsies. Them Mexicans. The queers are out to give us all AIDS. The Irish Travelers all abuse their kids. A perpetual game of Them vs. Us with constantly changing definitions of the tribes.

And God forbid you compare the plight of one group to another. The fight for civil rights by the queers is just nothing like the fight for black equality.

And I wonder whatever happened with Mostafa Tabatabainejad, the student at UCLA who was tased repeatedly for being different. (Okay, for not showing his ID the instant someone asked him for it.)

Of course, today we're not so blatant as we were "back then," right? We don't see White and Colored water fountains now.

(continued tomorrow)

Posted by Red Monkey at September 11, 2007 9:49 AM | Never Underestimate the Power of Human Stupidity | Struggles | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


serenity said:

No, you can't legislate attitude, which is why even when black slaves found themselves "free" in this country, their lives largely became even worse off than they were before, unable to do anything to support themselves. And for as advanced as we think we are, we just repeat the same cycle over and over, with different times calling on different groups to be the targets.

As for Mostafa, our only hope may be for him to apply for American Idol so we can find out what ever happened to him.

Red Monkey says: LMFAO ... sadly, I think you're right about American Idol. Interesting, as many in the blogosphere are pointing out that if Britney, Lindsey and Paris would just go down to Jena, Louisiana, there might be some decent news coverage of that mess.
September 11, 2007 2:24 PM
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