Small World: The Realities of racism

Henry Precht

Henry Precht

By Henry Precht
BN Columnist
There has been much talk in recent weeks of racism in America. Outraged by police shootings of unarmed black youth and subsequent grand jury refusals to indict the officers responsible, some citizens have condemned our society as racist to its core.
While it’s hard for an outsider to comment on treatment and attitudes he has not personally experienced, I would like to offer a few observations.
I was born and raised in the segregated South. Our house was one block from the jagged color line that separated whites from blacks. We knew many of the white families on our side of the line, nobody beyond it. Black kids didn’t go to our elementary school or play in the public park or even walk down the street in front of our house unless that was their only route to a job.
My parents were kind and fair-minded, but they never questioned the system of race separation they had grown up with. My father always got himself appointed chairman of the grand jury committee on education and filed reports of the dilapidated condition of Negro schools. Nothing changed, of course. He never advocated integration of the races.
We probably knew in a superficial way more African-Americans than most Mainers of the same period. There were the maids — Flossie, Suzie and Lily — who took care of my brother and me when we were small. We loved them, just as we had warm feelings for Percy and Irene, the elementary school janitor and maid. Weekly, we would be visited by Johnny with his pushcart of fresh vegetables and Lenora Batiste with a basket of seafood balanced on her head. My mother would give them a glass of ice water as they sat on our front steps. The same was offered to Mr. W.W Law, the postman who later became head of the local NAACP. (I’m sure my mother never called him Mr.)
Closest to us, however, were Ike and “Phibie” Higgins, who had done yard work and washing for my father for many years. Now, they were too old for any heavy labor, but sill walked five miles to our house to do a little raking or clean the chicken coops. More frequently, we would drive out to their scrap wood and tin patch house and give them some cash, old clothes or canned goods. Their delight was plain and honest.
Most important for me was Oscar, the warehouseman at Westinghouse Supply downtown. I — with arms the circumference of half dollars — was hired for the summer after my freshman year at junior college. Oscar taught me how to move heavy appliances and metal conduit that had been sitting in the sun. Always with a patient smile; never a complaint.
This was the town I remember. When I came back after year’s absence to find the civil rights movement had opened up the pubic library to blacks, I was dumbfounded. A liberal preacher friend, who had a church in a poor neighborhood, stepped outside to watch a demonstration and was given a concussion by a rioter’s 2x4. Tensions were rising.
Through all this, my mother and the white friends I grew up with never changed their views on race. It’s extremely hard for a teenager to separate himself from those around him. Eventually, after I’d left home, I did. Why? I’ve wondered. I can only guess that I was querulous by nature and influenced by the liberal arts education I received. Still, even now I sense my inherited prejudices and know that I cannot react to Ferguson and other crisis of race in the same way as those who grew up free from the habits of thought from the past.
I suspect that the patrolmen who confronted their nlack victims were also influenced by attitudes that prevail — unconsciously almost certainly — in our society. They are not likely to have pointed a loaded weapon or used a chokehold against a white suburbanite. The presumption that blacks are inferior, acceptable when subservient, dangerous when not, helps form racist reactions in our society despite our best efforts to purge the past of wrongs.
Henry Precht is a retired Foreign Service Officer.

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