In honor of Martin Luther King, let me give you my perspective on race, currently a most thorny topic here in America. After George Floyd’s ruthless murder by a white (I will not alter the convention of both white and black, when referring to people, not being capitalized) police officer, most everyone regardless of race were up in arms. On the other hand, America elected its first Afro-American President in 2008 and, subsequently, reelected him in 2012. We now have the first Afro-American female as our Vice-President. These are historic events the Reverend King certainly would have looked upon with much delight.
Rather than go through an analysis on the direction of racial progress in America, I will point out two specific events I experienced, though on the surface small, I believe to reflect the bigger picture. In 1967, I was a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) worker that serviced marginalized groups. During my training in Salt Lake City, I went on a field project with an elderly retired couple from Texas, who were also in VISTA. We had been placed with different families, and when we compared notes about the families with whom we had been assigned, the husband nonchalantly used the “N” word that quite shocked me.
Sometime around the turn of the century, upon visiting my mother in New Jersey, I took a taxi to Newark Penn Station enroute to Manhattan. Although I do not recall much of the conversation, part of what the cab driver said still remains quite vivid in mind. He indicated he was from the North Ward, an area in Newark, that was predominantly Italian. He stated that he could understand how black people like to hang out together, just like he, an Italian, enjoyed staying with his friends where he resided. Though he may not have been open to having relationships with Afro-Americans, he was able to acknowledge their right to live peaceably in Newark as equal to his right to live there.
In prior years when I would take a taxi, the drivers often made comments that had an underlying malicious tone. In more recent years, I have observed the tone of such comments by the drivers to be much less embittered, more toward accepting, rather than bad mouthing their black neighbors. Taxi drivers, like barbers, hear from all sources and very often echo back the sentiments of the varied clients with whom they have contact. In this sense, they may serve as cultural barometers.
The Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60’s, led by the actions of Martin Luther King Jr., ended the systematic discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin in employment practices, schools and at the workplace. By 1967, major civil law legislation had been passed, outlawing racial segregation in schools, public accommodations and employment discrimination. The passage of the Civil Rights Act ended the flagrant abuses of de jure (that is, by law) discrimination. This is not to say that de facto (by fact, but not sanctioned by law) discrimination does not exist. Without a doubt, it still does. A change in laws does not magically change people’s attitudes toward others. But at least not condoning or permitting racial discrimination by decree or order brings the level of consciousness of such action to a much higher level.
Although some form of anti-Semitism has been with us since ancient times, and yes it still exists in America, it is much less pervasive here than in other countries. Unfortunately, hate has been with the human race for time immemorial. Despite this fact, the Harvard psychologist, Steven Pinker, has demonstrated in his studies that the level of human violence throughout the world has decreased over time. He documented his findings in his book: The Better Angels of Our Nature. Let us hope the manifestation of hate into murderous acts continues to diminish.
Uttering the “N” word today is considered much worse than any expletive one might say in anger. Perhaps not for all, but I would maintain for many, this word has a very pejorative connotation that the couple I met in VISTA did not recognize. I don’t think, even the most cynical of us all, can contest the progress in race relations since the time of Martin Luther King Jr. But despite these positive changes, the recent rise of white supremacist antipathy for minorities, such as Jews and Afro-Americans, threaten to throw us back to the past. Let me end with a quote from Coretta Scott King, the late wife of Martin Luther King: “It is the very nature of this fight for civil rights and justice and equality that whatever gains we make, they will not be permanAent. So, we must be vigilant.”