Today is Martin Luther King Day. One day before the biggest inauguration since George Washington, and only 46 years since the famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Unlike Steve Martin, I was not born a poor black child. I was however very lucky to be raised without the iron of racial hatred and prejudice that so many people have to overcome thanks in part to being raised in parts of middle America where discrimination was more hidden, and also thanks to having parents who understood that this hatred was wrong.
Perhaps because of how I grew up, I had a leg up on not developing predjudices. I know that anthropologically we generalize things: it’s a survival trait from before we even had civilizations. When you see a bear attack somebody, you generalize that all bears are dangerous.
So for me, living in the comfort of middle America, my generalizations likely came from being exposed to people who were also enlightened middle class people. My experiences with people my parents socialized with were always generally positive, which probably means I generalized all people that way. I think this is one of the more insidious aspects of prejudice is that people will respond to the way they are treated. Somebody raised to think that a certain race is not to be trusted, will look for things to support that idea, and subconsciously encourage that behavior.
When we first moved to Wrangell (a small town and island in the south eastern portion of Alaska), I think I had my first real exposure to the shame of America. One of my friends at school was a native American (he was of the Tlinget tribe). When we went from one grade to the next (can’t remember exactly which grade), they told us that all of our “Indian” friends would be sent to the Indian school.
It was confusing and disturbing, and I couldn’t understand why it was happening. All I knew was there was some arbitrary rule that said if you’re part of this tribe, you can’t go to the same school with the other kids.
I lived in Alaska from the time I was in third grade until I was in sixth grade (1967 until 1970) when my Dad got a job for (the now infamous) Alaska Senator Ted Stevens. We made the trek across Canada on the Candian National Railway, down the coast to Washington, D.C. and to our new home in Alexandria Virginia (pronounced Vuh-gin-yuh after you’ve lived there).
When we got to Washington D.C., we wanted to drive through and see the capitol and all the sites. I remember it was evening, and we drove into the city, but at some point we came to some barricades. We were told it wasn’t safe to go into the city and were turned around to go out of the city. Later we watched the news to hear that there were “race riots” going on (I’m thinking now that it must have been related to the Jackson State killings).
We moved to Alexandria, Va. which was for the most part a suburb of the seats of power. You could take a bus to Washington D.C. (which I think my Dad did every day) and it was about as lily white a place as I had ever lived. I was in junior high by now, and the middle school I went to did not have a diverse population (out of a couple hundred kids, there were two black kids, one indigenous American). Most of the kids at this school were from fairly affluent families, and from what I could see there wasn’t any obvious prejudice there.
As I finished with middle school, and was preparing for high school, some of my friends started talking about how the “bad” kids would be getting bussed to the high school next year. I didn’t know why, or who these “bad” kids might be, but I was a little worried.
The first day of school arrived, and to my horror and surprise, I saw first hand who the “bad” kids really were. I saw kids from my old school, yelling and throwing things at the buses that were arriving. The high school was one of the first to integrate, and the so called “bad” kids they had been talking about, were the black kids from the ghetto. I was horrified to learn that my friends had been afraid of these kids because of the color of their skin.
This was a culture shock: I went from a middle school that was 100% upper middle class, to a high school that was suddenly 70% low income kids. Here were kids who thought that getting a job as a garbage man was the equivalent of being President. I was from a background where a college education was assumed to be part of the plan, they were from a place where staying in school was something you had to do, and only until you could find a job. There were language differences too: the first time somebody asked me to borrow a “prunsel”, I had no idea what it was (they were asking for a pencil).
So today, on the eve of the amazing accomplishment of the inauguration of Barack Obama, I am truly grateful (and impatient) for the dream that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke so eloquently about. It’s still a dream, but with our first non-white president, we have a little more proof that all things are possible.
Can we realize the dream (and overcome the insidious nature of hateful prejudice) ?
Yes we can !