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September, 2008

I was raised with bigotry.

Dad was born in 1900, and grew up in a small town in northwestern Missouri. He related in later years that a sign on the main street read, "Nigger, don't let the sun set on you in [this town]."

I can't write this article without using some language that is offensive to me—and I hope to you. It's difficult for me to write it, and I'm not at all sure that it's the right thing to do. I don't use it to shock you. But the underlying sentiments of that language are indeed the subject of this treatise. I don't think I could clearly communicate my thesis without it, and I believe that the thesis is important.

Dad was a good man. He had the disease of alcoholism, which often diverted him from demonstrating that goodness. But he was good. He also was possessed by the social disease of bigotry. It was no more his fault than his alcoholism. And reprehensible as was his bigotry, it doesn't diminish his goodness. It is simply a separate thing.

Mom was different. She had grown up in Florida and lived in Texas. While she expressed some disfavor for Black and Mexican people, she was far more tolerant than Dad. When she did signal her sense of difference, it didn't have the edge that Dad's expressions had. She was more accepting and graceful.

Dad's bigotry wasn't limited to one race or culture. He had disdain for all who were different from him, and from that Missouri community from whence he came. The disdain was proportional to the difference, and the most discernible difference was skin color. The darker the skin, the greater the disdain. But in the universality of his bigotry, he had stock pejoratives for any racial or ethnic group: niggers, chinks, micks, wetbacks—and on and on and on.

He expressed his bigotry clearly, colorfully and often. I grew up hearing things like, "No nigger will ever set foot in this house," "He's as nervous as a nigger goin' to election," and "There never was a nigger born who didn't lie, cheat, steal and stink."

I warned you that this would get ugly. I remind you that without that language, we can't really understand the ugliness.

We lived only a couple of blocks from the edge of what we then called the colored neighborhood. But I knew no one from there. My elementary school was perhaps three blocks from that boundary, but there were no Black children enrolled. My junior high school was just as close. There may have been a dozen Black kids there in all of the three years I attended.

My high school was half a mile from the African-American neighborhood, and about twenty percent of our school population was Black—but few of those students were in my classes. The school was effectively segregated into a front and back hall. The back hall had the home economics and shop classes, and the gyms—and most of the Black and Hispanic kids. The front hall had the academic classes, and the students in those rooms were predominantly white. The college prep classes I took were almost all white. Most of my association with those other kids was in ROTC.

I took my bigotry to high school with me. The others did too. We had all been kept separate, and effectively taught that other races were awful. When we came together we tended to prove it to each other. I do remember having a couple of acquaintances with darker skin than mine. Carl was Black; Pete was Mexican. I liked them, which didn't fit my world view, so I didn't let if affect me much. We didn't really become friends. And I didn't really trust white kids who did have Black or Hispanic friends.

I did think of another acquaintance as a friend—sort of. He was white, spoke with a bit of a southern accent, and was vocal about his hatred of other races. He was the only student I knew who was as bigoted as me. It gave us a bond, and tended to isolate us from other people. But we didn't become close. He was smart, but a bit too crude and coarse for me. I felt myself to be better than him. Today, I see that something in me just wasn't comfortable with the hatred. It was a beginning.

When I was about fifteen or sixteen, Dr. Martin Luther King visited our city and preached at my church. I actually have no recollection of the event; I've read about it in recent years. I don't think I was there, which is hard for me to explain. I was very active in the church in those years. I do know that I didn't hold King in high regard at that time. I believed what I'd been told at home—that he was a troublemaker.

The day after my eighteenth birthday, and about ten days before I was planning to leave for Santa Barbara for college, violent, destructive riots broke out in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts. In five days, thirty-four people died, a thousand were injured, and four thousand arrested. Property damage ran to $200 million ($1.4 billion in today's money). The Watts riot was discomfiting to all Americans. We had been witnessing violence in the South, and New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller had called out the National Guard to quell a July riot in Rochester. But Watts was beyond anything we'd seen or expected.

I didn't understand it. I had thought that the racial problems in the South were the work of agitators, and were peculiar to the South. I couldn't imagine Black people destroying their own neighborhoods. I hadn't even known that Los Angeles had Black people—we didn't see them on TV.

I wish I could remember the name of my college Sociology instructor. She challenged our bigotry. She demanded that we identify and attempt to defend the social and cultural views that supported our hatred. We couldn't, of course. I believe I was then, as now, a student of truth. I began to understand that, to paraphrase Isaac Newton, a whole ocean of truth lay undiscovered before me—truth about people. I was beginning to become open.

I think that Sociology class was in the fall of 1967. On April 5, 1968, our campus, along with our nation was in shock. Martin Luther King had been assassinated the night before. I recall watching a commemoration that day on our campus—watching from the side, witnessing the grief of our largely white campus, unsure of my own feelings. A year earlier, I would probably have been glad he was gone. By that April day, changes were astir in me. I wasn't quite ready to celebrate King's life, but I was no longer so filled with hate.

After college, I returned to my home town. In the early '70s, my Mother received a phone call from her much-younger sister, from Florida. She had just married her second husband, and they were leaving Florida. They had to—her new husband was Black. Lucille drove through Alabama with Tony lying on the floor of the car, afraid of trouble if they were to be seen together. They were on their way to begin their new life in our city, which they believed to be more tolerant than the South.

But there was trouble here, too. Dad had announced that Mom's sister was welcome, but that nigger couldn't come to our home. Mom informed Dad that her sister, and her new husband, would be staying there for a while, and if anyone was leaving, it would be Dad.

Dad didn't have much choice, actually. He was pretty crippled from a drunken fall several years earlier. He was no longer really independent. My parents had moved a couple of years earlier from the three-bedroom house in which I'd grown up, to a two-bedroom, second floor walk-up. Dad would be pretty uncomfortable for a couple of days, but he was just going to have to live with it.

Tony and Lucille only lived in our city for a few years, and I haven't seen them in perhaps fifteen years, but for a while, Tony and I became great friends. He was a mammoth man, well over six feet, with ebony skin. We went camping together, just the two of us. Tony loved to fish, and I prowled the woods with a camera. I spoke with pride of my Black uncle.

Tony and Lucille had a son. Her ivory skin and fine features blended with Tony's ebony and mass to produce an absolutely beautiful milk-chocolate boy. They were all in my parent's home often during the first years of their marriage.

Moving day came again to Mom and Dad while Tony and Lucille were still around. Mom had found an ideal apartment in a senior's facility. Tony showed up; he was the kind of man you could count on. He and I wrestled the large furniture around the turns on the staircase. The two of us moved the big refrigerator on a dolly. Actually, Tony stood under the fridge and hefted it while I steered by the dolly handles, pulling up as best I could, but fully aware that I was doing virtually nothing.

Dad could do little. He sat on a small chair in the living room, with an ashtray and a can of beer on a stool at his side, and watched Tony work. When the truck was loaded, it was time to get Dad downstairs for the journey to the new place. Tony walked up to him and asked if he was ready to go. The answer being in the affirmative, Tony picked Dad up like a baby, cradled him in his big, black, sweaty arms and carried him lovingly downstairs. I followed with the chair and stool, not letting Dad see the moistness in my eyes.

Dad had been a lawyer before alcoholism robbed him of his career and so much else in his life. He revered the Constitution, and took his politics seriously. The early 1970s brought racial turmoil to our city, with frequent skirmishes between police and Corky Gonzales's Crusade for Justice. In 1970 and '74, the La Raza Unida Party ran slates of candidates for state office. It must have been in 1974 that Dad voted for the La Raza gubernatorial candidate, supporting their effort to gain enough votes to become a recognized political party in the state. By then, he had come to believe that Chicanos needed that level of political recognition and power. La Raza didn't succeed, but Dad had come a long way.

Tony wouldn't be my last close friend with black skin. There were other friends, and many acquaintances. Likewise Latinos. In the early eighties, I was marketing director for a Black radio station, which also had a large Hispanic audience. I live in a diverse community, and thrive in that diversity. Today, in a mixed gathering, I occasionally become aware of skin color, realizing that prior to such a moment, I had not even noticed. I'm grateful. I'm grateful that my anger today is directed toward bigotry rather than toward its victims.

So these stories, mine and Dad's, are important to me. But I know that the struggle against bigotry is not so simple and pretty as this. A great Sociology teacher and a Black uncle are good, but it takes more than that to win the greater struggle against the human hatred that has plagued our kind for eons.

Perhaps a dozen years ago, a talk show host did a week-long series of programs on race. Near the end, he said that the only way we achieve victory over this hatred is if we each confront the bigotry we find in our own heart. We must first admit that it is there, then act to be rid of it. I agree fully. And I add one other thing. We must each be willing to be free of it. I believe from my own experience, and from what I have witnessed, that when we admit the truth of the bigotry within us, and are truly willing to have it removed, it will be gone. It cannot live in an honest heart.

I don't believe that bigotry is the natural state of humankind. Rather, I accept the line from the song in South Pacific , "We have to be carefully taught." We learned our bigotry from our fathers and our communities. We can learn a different course.

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copyright © 2010, J. C. Adamson