The Great “Unlearning”

Nobody is born a racist. But we’re all trainable.

I’ve started this article about five times in the last thirty days, but the landscape of race relations changes, and I continually have to reboot. It has changed again with the gunning down of family man Audrey DuBose at the University of Cincinnati. And yet nothing has changed. What is chillingly consistent is what William Bennett once referred to as “the death of outrage,” white outrage in this case, over DuBose’s senseless cold-blooded killing by a trigger happy campus cop because he was black and apparently didn’t look appropriately middle-class.

What actually left me dumbfounded was the media handling of this tragedy because it finished a distant second to the viral indignation over the trophy killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe. Don’t get me wrong, Cecil’s slaughter was a terrible event. And there should be an international ban on trophy hunting. But here we had a decent, law-abiding father of ten murdered on a university campus and the entire event is followed by this numbing universal shrug—that of business as usual where class and race relations are concerned—that this struggle continues, and we as a society just can’t seem to get it together.

For me it was the Tipping Point. This is where it ends, or must end. This is not where it began. That happened over a month ago with the June 18 mass murder in the Emanuel African Methodist and Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, including the assassination of Senator Clementa Pinckney. This, more than anything, brought to the surface some fresh scars on us all.

What it did for me was give me a wake-up call. Watching the mass murder of these truly beautiful souls and the events surrounding the aftermath sent several things home to me immediately. First, the class, dignity, forgiveness and spiritual awareness of the victims’ families gave us all an object lesson in impeccable response to crisis. Second, observing Dylann Roof and his unrepentant behavior, whatever his psychological profile, served to convince me that evil can take root in anyone. But it can only do so if it is given permission to flourish. The question is where does that permisison come from?

Much of that answer, whether we like it or not, came in the form of the photo taken of this madman holding the flag of Dixie. Flags are symbols, nothing more; nothing less. It was not surprising to me that the flag came under attack. What surprised and disappointed me the most was the fact that so many, silent in face of the slaughter at Emanuel, came rushing vehemently in defense of a piece of cloth that has, at best, symbolized separatism, defiance and rebellion every time it has flown—a flag that General Robert E. Lee pointed to after Appomattox and declared: “Gentlemen we have lost. Put it away.”

What finally cinched it for me was all the pushback surrounding this event, and the fact that it hatched out such violent partisan passion chillingly depicted by the diabolical expression I saw on the face of the Grand Wizard of the South Carolina Ku Klux Klan as he defended the flag of Dixie. Gazing into the face of that unmitigated evil and the flag rippling in the wind behind, it struck me.

We have once again allowed extremism to enjoy an unfettered celebration of itself. And people from my generation (and Baby Boomers) should have spoken out against it and yet did not. We should have locked arms and marched and protested the murder of these beautiful souls in Charleston and yet did not. We should have railed against the cold-blooded murder of Samuel DuBose in Cincinnati and yet have not. We should, with one voice, have spoken out against the senseless arrest, death and police cover-up of Houston businesswoman Sandra Bland, and yet did not,

And the silence is deafening.

Instead, we have indulged too long in a culture of Silent Complicity. And it is the quintessential confirmation of what Emund Burke observed when he said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” It is time we changed it. The question is, how? How have we failed to do so up to this point? And what can we do to end the sinister subtext of discrimination that still flourishes in this nation to this day?

Especially as it applies to racism, I am firm in my conviction that it is not a natural state of being. I have come to believe, as did Jean Jacques Rousseau, that humankind is innately good and that left to its own resources it will inevitably seek the light.  I also believe that all forms of hatred and discrimination are learned skills that, in the words of the old Rogers and Hammerstein [South Pacific] bromide, “have to be carefully taught.” So it was with me. And so I recite my personal journey… and what I hope has been a quest for the truth.

When I was a small child in Minnesota during the early stages of World War II, I had no sense of race, nor had I ever seen a person of color before. (They apparently had the good sense to avoid the sub-polar climes of places like Duluth.) So when, at the age of three and a half, I found myself on a train bound for Fort Worth, Texas and my father’s new career in aeronautical engineering, I thought myself headed for the fantasyland of cowboys and beautiful horses.

It was on that train-trip that I first saw a black couple. Young, well-dressed, handsome and setting forth an aura that I, still too young to be discouraged from seeing such things, could not help but delight in. The woman, somewhat zaftig and very sweet, returned my fascination with an enchanting smile. None of the stern gray downgazes I was used to getting from other adults, this was a very human regard that instantly won my heart. To me, it was magical.

When I asked my mother who these fascinating people were, she informed me that they were something apart. There were “cultural differences,” she had been told. And we needed to be careful. In fact, my mother, Laura, hadn’t seen any more of them than I. But she had already been warned to expect this kind of racial texture to the South, just as she had been educated into the common perception that racial barriers were necessary to the “preservation of harmony and balance.” She was also told, and passed on to me that “coloreds,” as they were politely called, didn’t really want to mix with whites—that they weren’t comfortable with us.

Immediately upon arriving in Texas, I couldn’t help but notice that in train stations or public places where blacks were actually allowed, there were special drinking fountains for “Whites” and “Coloreds,” as well as restrooms set aside for both races.

How thoughtful! I, in my four-year old logic decided, that people in Texas were so considerate as to give each race its own space. Later, I was politely informed that this was the only way that coloreds were to be allowed in a public place at all, that the facilities were different because the coloreds “weren’t clean.”

“Polite,” was the operative word in those times. Because, I was soon to realize that, in the carefully textured societies of the upper middle-class in Texas, one never applied one’s racism harshly. One always referred to blacks as “Negroes” or “coloreds.” One should always be respectful but keep a firm hand because “They cannot always be trusted. So many of them steal. And if you’re lucky enough to find a good one, hang on to her (not him). Because an honest colored is worth her weight in gold.”

By the time I was five, our entire family had been inundated with a litany of racist clichés parroted by rote from some handbook of indoctrination: The Northerner’s Survival Guide to The Racial Rubix of The South. (Nothing was written down of course. The code was a Catechism, pounded-in like a mantra from day one.)

Colored women had to do all the work, because the men couldn’t hold down a job. Almost all the [black] men were shiftless, lazy, and refused all the honest labor that was offered them (things like janitorial work, drag-lines, service station attendants and shoe-shine stands). The women brought the children up, because none of the men stayed around. The men were always off drinking, gambling, cavorting with prostitutes and performing criminal acts. Of course, my mother in particular was being delicately but relentlessly brainwashed, because that was the way it worked in civilized society.

That was the most insidious aspect to these implants of bigotry, because it wasn’t on the job, on the streets or in the locker rooms—the stiff edges of the masculine world with its rants and racial tirades—where the cleverest work was done. It was through those soft afternoons with finger foods and punch. It was the women, after all, with their passive-aggressive slant; racism with a velvet glove and just the right touch of class.

How insidiously the lines were drawn, how subtly they sifted into the seams of a very young mind. And yet even then I experienced a kind of daily dissonance that told me that all this was wrong. In the midst of all this tea-party bias came evidence of family, a black family, in our lives. Our maid, L.E., a plus-size Mother Theresa with a gift for love and a genius daughter who graduated with honors from Howard; my barber and friend Merdice White, the best haircut and wisest man of the first 25 years of my life; and our laundry lady Mehalia who took in washing all across town to put her son through college—these were the living contradictions that made the clichés ring hollow. Why, I wondered, even then was such a case being made for the genetic inferiority of legitimate human beings? The irony in all of this was that these “family retainers” [that sad demeaning term] actually were like family. They were friends; we exchanged gifts on holidays and remembered birthdays. And no one was more protective of them than my rather quixotic mother. We of course had chosen our associations wisely, where others clearly had not. The fact that other people surely felt same way we did underscored the fact that there were a lot of really fine “coloreds” out there; the ones, of course, who understood their place.

I thank God, even now, for my highly evolved father, who never once in his life displayed a moment’s judgment or personal prejudice. “Don’t listen to all the things others tell you. Take people as they come. There are good and bad among all races. It’s the individual you look to; use your instincts. Always use your instincts.”

Dad was always good to his word. He treated everyone with respect. And even though his engineering work took him away quite often, his admonitions stuck, and I always tried to do the right thing. The issue of race seemed buried for a while. I grew up in an orderly world—polite but fraught with barriers invariably observed.

But peer pressure becomes its own kind of beast. And though I never once ridiculed a black because of his race or ever made race an issue, I was guilty of my own brand of silent complicity. I should have spoken against it, and yet there were many times when I let the moment pass or even laughed when I heard a racist joke (as long as no black could hear it). I did so out of caution that I reasoned was common sense: After all it was a rabid dog, this obsession with race, frothing at the least provocation, ready to rip the slightest dissent, swift to slay the bold.

In my childhood, nothing brought this to the fore more obviously than the arena of athletics, the singular place where all men were equal; at least they should have been.

When I was quite young, I was obsessed with all sports. And some of my first heroes in the late 1940s and early 1950s were the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Jackie Robinson in baseball and Marion Motley, the NFL Cleveland Browns fullback. They were phenomenal athletes. I marveled at their stats, and I wondered aloud why there weren’t more black football and baseball players in the big leagues. Of course, I was told that, “Black players could field, but they couldn’t hit.”  And black football players “always fumbled…They panicked when the chips were down. They didn’t come through in the clutch.”

When I played football in high school, I recall that my teammates and I used to go to watch (the Fort Worth, Texas high-school “for coloreds”) I.M. Terrell play on Thursday nights (virtually without fumbles). I remember marveling at their power and speed, at their savage skill and grit; and my friends and I openly acknowledged that we were damn lucky we didn’t have to play them. Even so, I went through school feeling as if there were something missing—a test of my manhood left unmet, a brotherhood denied.

What I realized, and quickly was a constant subtext of fear, a loathing born of the inculcation of cultural ignorance. And even on the fields of endeavor where the hard partitions softened, there were forces opposed to this that dug in even more deeply as we closed hard upon the inevitable run of progress that was to follow.

Even when I went away to university at Washington & Lee University in Virginia where men wore coats and ties to class and claimed the codes of chivalry, I found inside this educational citadel of the Old South a culture of racial animus I had never experienced before. It wasn’t carved in stone as such. This, the tenth oldest university in America, was too refined to declare it outwardly. Still there were those barriers; those lines that were never crossed. And the undergrads were the ones who staunchly enforced them.

None of the soft curtains of separation that threaded through the social structures of Texas, these were hard lines, hardened even further by the Civil Rights agitations at that time.  Some fraternities (not all) actually took pride in their white supremacy and flew their colors—the flag of Dixie—proudly from their frat house rooftops as a major part of their code. Their rituals of racial rejection were practiced daily in peer-group and turned into a cult.

At some point during my higher education, I wondered if I would ever find a world where racism wasn’t a point of obsession. I was surrounded by it, and wanted to denounce it, but once again lacked either the courage or the core support to do so. So I simply drew myself away and hoped this whorl of madness would someday dissipate.

Television and the tide of events took care of that for me. In the late 1950s, I think the visual records of brutality heaped upon a people struggling, with great dignity, merely for the right to an education or to have a meal where they desired, was enough to char the sensibilities of anyone with a conscience. Civil disobedience is a noble thing. And yet it wasn’t with the soft entreaties of Dr. Martin Luther King but with the harsh and brilliant rhetoric of Malcolm X where I finally experienced my own personal Eureka!

Here was a black man unlike any other—terrifying and truthful, articulate, savagely militant, and yet unerring in his social disciplines, at staying inside the lines. As militant and accusatory as MLK was Gandhiesque and patient, Malcolm tipped the balance way over to the side of radicalization—so much so that Dr. King and his advocacy for racial tolerance suddenly met with a higher level of cohesion than it had before. I suspected the move was calculated, but it really didn’t matter whether it was or not. The motivation was not nearly as important as the result.

In the strictest sense of the word, Malcolm was terrifyingly militant. He made observations about the etiology of racism that no black advocate had dared give voice to before. In his autobiography he insisted that institutional racism had—beyond mere slave trading—had been a matter of philosophical inculcation at the very highest levels. Having long believed, as did Napoleon, that history is “written by the winners,” I strongly suspected that Malcolm might have been telling the truth and that his rage was both well-placed and accurate.

So here was Malcolm X—a man honest with himself, ruthlessly compassionate with his own people, denouncing those seduced by the connivances of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society as “taking scraps from the white man’s table,” thus creating a generation of “indolent welfare sheep.”  Yet it saddened me to realize that, in the end, it was Malcolm’s own move toward moderation that brought on his death. He too caught the fallacy of race. He too saw that all men were brothers beneath the skin. Finally, he was able to put the past aside and embrace it; at the cost of his life and at the hands of political factions within his own community.

 Of course, by the late 1960s the social apparatus was in place to make counterculture protest and rebellion the social flavors of the day. Especially “Black Power” (a terrifying term to revenant white Southern males) had taken on a whole new meaning. New social icons in music and film were rising every day.

 By the late 1960s and early 70s, I had gone into advertising and had become professionally one of the well-entrenched “Mad Men.” Advertising and major ad agencies defined the cutting edge. We had become the vanguard of Age of Racial Equality Chic. And it seemed that we had come by it almost too easily. Egalitarianism had become the new cause celébre. By that time, I had been among those who marched on the courthouses in Chicago and made them lower the flag to honor the death of Martin Luther King. If we had not already dated someone of another race, we had them in our social settings. It all seemed superficial, tentative, drug-induced, and something even worse—fashionable. But people change like the fashions they wear, and Galton’s Law prevails; everything returns to the mean, to that iron normalcy set in place to ensure that nothing really changes.

Even though I was living in the North and then moved to a foreign country, my view from another continent showed me that the affectations of equality had all been so superficially set in place that racism had merely slipped beneath the surface into a muted realm of resentful silence.

 At least by then we had laws in place, and there was the surety of integrated education. But I was never convinced that in the subtext of human relations we had yet evolved to a point where it would work. Suddenly there was “bussing.” Suddenly is the trigger word, because impoverished black youngsters with poor educational foundations and dysfunctional home environments were abruptly dropped smack into a white middle class school culture for which neither side was prepared. In fact the social imbalance, certainly in the South, proved to be catastrophic. What came to be known as “White Flight” to private schools became epidemic. And academic circles were bombarded with Bell Curve IQ tests such as the now infamous Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT) between 1949 and 1953 that showed unequivocally that whites—across the board—were intellectually superior to blacks.

 So here am I, trying to justify racial and personal equanimity that blacks deserved absolute equality when the scientific metrics by which social and mental competency were measured favored the European/North American Caucasian “eugenic” model as clearly superior.

 In my attempts to explain this to myself, I referenced the accusations of Malcom X and his conspiracies of the manipulation of data regarding the races. I started delving deeply into the institutionalization of racism and voila! There it was in black and white advocated by every “great” Western philosopher from Voltaire to Hegel: the corrupt matrix of the black races that most philosophers had come to conclude were mentally inferior, socially slovenly and innately morally depraved—more akin in their behavior to animals than human beings. The German philosopher Christoph Meiners even went so far as to demonstrate that the “ugly dark Negro race” was so far inferior in sensibility, intelligence and moral values to the “beautiful white races” that they were virtually impervious to pain—even when burned alive. Later, around 1840, anthropologist Samuel George Morton created a new measurement called craniometry offering [falsified] metric samples that the “Negroid peoples” had thicker skulls and smaller brain mass more closely akin to great apes…and were therefore the lowest human link on the evolutionary chain. Even Charles Darwin, though horrified at the vicious abuse of black slaves in America, concluded that the dark races were incredibly stupid and therefore incapable of conducting themselves in an appropriate civilization.

When I originally researched this, I could not help but come to the conclusion that this culture of categorical racism dictated by the most highly lauded philosophers of their time was stacking the deck against blacks in ways I had never imagined. Small wonder this apocryphal bombardment of bigotry came cascading down into the mass-mind thinking of every nation in Western Civilization, all the while providing philosophical fodder for the hate-literature that filled the pamphlets of the Ku Klux Klan, the Arian Nation, and (very originally) the Third Reich, that had created a racial mythology all its own to use against the Jews.

 Fortunately in my studies I happened upon a book called Man’s Most Dangerous Myth: The Fallacy of Race. Penned by Ashley Montagu, one of the most brilliant visionary sociologists of all time, this massive volume drove home two truths for me: First was the realization skin color, as such, was primarily an adaptation to climate. Dark skin was a melanin advantage to mitigate the effects of the heat and the sun. Coarse, kinky thick-woven hair was a natural block against sunstroke. White skin was melanin deficient, able to process the most Vitamin D out of the cold and darkness. (Blue eyes picked up light more quickly to adapt to long winter nights. Brown eyes better blocked harsh sunlight) Second, Montagu also addressed the absurd superimposition of white Western culture placed upon the Negroid race, especially where it involved “intelligence testing” so heavily weighted in favor of whites [and I paraphrase]:

 “You take an entire race of people, extract them from their known universe—their culture, their history, their language, their music and literature, their very roots—then you drop them into an alien world, tear apart families and otherwise separate them from any points of reference, force them to comprehend a foreign language without benefit of literature or learning, press them into a servitude that includes abject poverty, poor nutrition, brutal repression and the mandated denial of formal schooling of any kind, and then suddenly set them free. You fling them unprepared into a social structure that is inbred to reject them, all the while expecting them in the course of three or four generations to match in education, intellect and social awareness a civilization that has had virtual millennia to establish. Then we wonder why they are not able to test as well when pressed to do so…” [sic.]

 Thank you Ashley Montagu for giving us all perspective, and for articulating for a race of people what they were virtually never allowed to express on their own behalf! If nothing else had filled in the blanks for me, this had done it. At least I came to understand why the wheels of progress were so slow to grind, and along with it the revenant “white” resistance to this process that festered beneath the surface—not only in the South but in all other parts of American culture as well.

 Flash forward a dozen years or so to the early 1980s in Dallas, Texas and my first true friendship with a black man named Arthur.

I had garnered something of a reputation as a decent speechwriter, and Arthur was heading up the PR department for a major utility company noted for its “Speakers Bureaus.” Soon enough, what began as a professional relationship—writer to client—developed into some moderate social association. I invited his wife and him to join my girlfriend and me for a night on the town—dinner and the theatre. We had lunch a couple of times after that, and I found the man both articulate and intelligent, able to discuss arts and letters in a way few others could. Here was a person of color, well spoken and well informed, more of a renaissance man than any of my “friends.” I shared this truth with him, told him of my respect for him, and my sincere desire for his friendship.

And it was only then that I realized how deeply scars went for all of us. “Why?” he asked me. “What do you want? You have my business. You’re now on contract. What more do you want? What can you possibly expect from this?” His tone was accusatory and fraught with a kind of pained suspicion that frankly didn’t surprise me in the least. By way of explanation, Arthur told me that in Mississippi where he grew up white boys and black boys played together until they were eight or nine and then were separated forever, sent away to different worlds never to cross paths again.

 “Past a certain age, friendship with a white man was just something that we were taught would never take place. It was never allowed. No one even considered it.”

 He apologized for his skepticism as did I for not understanding the difficulty of his ability to accept it. In truth I knew it only too well. In truth, I too felt the hollow stir of air in the pregnant pauses that come with trying too hard to be correct. Eventually we overcame it, and learned to relax during our periodic lunches together. And though the man was independent, proud, and never complained of his roots or denounced the injustice of it all, there were those inevitable times when the discrimination surfaced.

 Arthur, his wife, Brenda, and their two children had recently moved into an all-white neighborhood in nearby Fort Worth, Texas. And yet, even though they had already proved that the real-estate values would not decline for their having bought a home there, they had, to say the least, never been embraced by the locals. That was more than underscored when they sent out invitations to a birthday party for his young son Trig, and not a single child from the neighborhood had come to their house.

 Even though we adults were poor substitutes, my girlfriend and I went on a shopping spree, bought a pile of birthday presents and drove over to help this sensitive young boy and his baby sister celebrate his seventh birthday. We laughed, ate cake, opened presents, and for an entire afternoon felt our bond of friendship thicken, and deepen. (In retrospect, I’m happy to say the action was spontaneous. We did not because it was the right thing to do, but a higher, deeper instinct had taken over and we were—for the first time in my life anyway—on a kind of cosmic autopilot.) What surprised me in the wake of all this was when I learned from an ex-girlfriend that I was being criticized for my friendship with this man, that my peers expressed the opinion that I would rally from this “social experiment” and soon return to my senses.

 How much that relationship taught me about what little truly separates us, one from the other, about how we all share the same dreams and moments of kindness and recollection. And yet how difficult it had been to come by, how a friendship that should have been our natural gift to one another often took so much conscious labor to achieve.

 Later, in 1993, I moved to Malibu, California to pursue my interests in show business, and Arthur and I eventually fell out of touch. But I had heard from him that his son Trig and his daughter Tony had gone on to garner academic honors just as he had done, just as his wife Brenda had done before she became a teacher.

 As I write this, I often wonder about my friend Arthur, about his family, and about how we managed to hold onto a friendship that was both strong and fragile and—over time and distance—all too brief.

 Now that I’m in California, paradoxically ahead of the curve where race relations are concerned, I have several “people of color” as friends. And yet I realize, even as the description escapes my mouth, that even by way of saying such things I have become a cliché of racial tolerance.

 One, a brilliant actor, is one of my closest friends and truly a “brother from another mother.” Here I see blacks as the new middle class. They are the ones who find jobs in our government, serve honorably in our military, see their children off to college and make sure they pay their taxes. Rap artists and wide-receivers not withstanding, all the black “celebrities” I have come to know well are among the most gracious, present and collegial in an industry rife with narcissism and entitlement. Despite the onslaughts of illegals from over the border, who bring their own cultural animus towards blacks, I sense a progress here—a brotherhood, equanimity, hope.

 I report all this good news about the races to my friends in Texas or Alabama or Florida, and I receive the same muted but resigned response: “It’s not that way back here I assure you,” the phrases come in rosaries of denial. And in a way, sadly, I’m not surprised. The implants of separatism go too deep, and they confirm the Jesuit Catechism that asserts: “Give us a boy before he is seven and he will be ours for life.”

As I think about it—when I look back on that twisted, silent, cowardly and courageous, often lonely path that brought us all to some sweet reconciliation with our brothers on both sides of the veil—I realize that I must both forgive and ask forgiveness, that I must both understand and forbid, heal and prevent this ever happening again to a generation such as mine. I pray too that in the future we’ll let our children alone, at least to make their own decisions and find what Abraham Lincoln once referred to as, “the better angels of our nature.”

I also realize that the vast preponderance of generations X, Y and Millennials— black and white—will read this confessional and wonder (perhaps with disbelief) just what the hell I’m talking about. “We’re past that man,” most of them—like the fine young men I coach in rugby at Pepperdine—would tell me. “That was another time and place. This is a whole new world we live in.”

 And then I behold the photos of madness and the cold mean stare of hatred coming from a demented twenty-one year old man, sitting in a midnight cemetery still clinging to points of reference that are as deeply imbedded as they are sick and sour. Dylann Roof is holding a flag. It is merely a symbol. And yet there is darkness behind it.

 It is the darkness that houses nearly 900,000 black inmates, more than half of those on non-violent drug-possession charges. It is the darkness that somehow gives license to our law enforcement agencies to savage blacks with a ruthless repressive force for the same misdemeanors committed by whites and other races. It is the darkness that haunts so many whites of a certain age with a mentality of bitter resentment…one that is so desperately in need of an exorcism.

I view this darkness, and I lament. And yet I can look beyond it, remembering at the same time the words of Gandhi: “For I can see that in the midst of evil good persists, that in the midst of untruth truth persists, that in the midst of darkness light persists.”

I see that light beyond the darkness, and I remember—the lucent magical smile of a beautiful black woman on a train in 1942 sent to a four year-old white boy with a very transformative message—soul to soul with humanity and redemption. I think back on that moment, on that splendid synchronicity, and all I can say is: “Thank you, sister. Thank you with all my heart.”

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