Thursday, June 18, 2009

One Kid's Walk to School

I started talking to a Master Chief this morning who I learned had grown up in Boston and Lawrence, and had a large family based mainly in Lawrence and Brockton (he had recently been stationed in Portsmouth but was now stationed in CT and was basically all over the place...he must be crazy).

Anyway, after doing some Lawrence-v-Lowell comparisons (he had talked about several attempts to revitalize Lawrence that had never gained steam), he started talking about growing up in Boston as a kid in the 1970s. A Dominican-American with a Sammy Sosa-like complexion, he had lived in Roxbury but was bused to school in South Boston.

"When my friends and I saw all those people throwing rocks at us, we didn't really get it," he said. "We thought it almost funny, like a game. People would throw rocks, we would all duck and laugh. I think it was a lot tougher on my sister, because she was in high school at the time. I can only imagine what she went through."

He said this with a forced smile, but got much more serious when he talked about the day when he missed his bus as an eight year-old third-grader.

"As a kid, I really loved going to school, so I just figured I would walk. Since I had always paid attention to the route the bus took, I just traced that same route out by foot as I hoofed it. That walk that day really opened my eyes to things in a way I had never seen before."

That's when he talked about his walk through South Boston as a dark-skinned black eight year-old on a cold weekday morning in the 1970s. He remembered all the taunts, the threats, the racial epithets, and even being chased by grown men two or three times his size. As he described it, by the time he finally got to school, he was badly shaken up. Physically, he had stayed unharmed, but he had essentially been terrorized for no reason other than his skin color...just for walking to school.

The 1970s weren't really all that long ago. Even for Americans, with our ahistorical mindset and focus on the future rather than the past, most of us can still remember this time in one form or another. In fact, on Friday, one of my neighbors was talking about trips to Fenway Park with his father in the 1970s, which came replete with the worst behavior, language, and, of course, racial slurs, that he had seen just about anywhere.

Still, amazingly, the Master Chief spoke without a single word or even tone that suggested bitterness. Instead, he focused a lot more on amazement at how far society had come in the past generation, and how he never would've believed he would live to see a President and a Governor of color. He talked a lot about how uplifted he feels to see his kids (who are biracial) have friends of every different hue and background.

Within my own lifetime, I've noticed a lot of the same progress. There are too many changes to mention, but there was a time not too long ago when our popular culture did a far poorer job of reflecting the country's great diversity. A quick scan of the many channels I now have (thanks, Comcast) shows me this. And the best part? The many people of color who now regularly appear on cable news aren't there just to talk about *those* issues. Take a look at CNBC, for instance. You've got a wide-ranging cast of characters there of both genders and all racial backgrounds talking about T-Bills, short sales, derivative markets, commodities, etc. Their ethnic and gender diversity is such a given that the only time the 'd' word comes up there is in reference to investors' portfolios. That's progress.

To me, the next major hurdle I'd like to see cleared would be the subversion of the Far Right agenda (the country's halls of power should be filled with straight white males) as well as the Far Left agenda (white people should be constantly apologizing, and a person of color can never be wrong) -- I don't know when, if ever, we'll get *there* but it'll come when we can speak frankly to each other without having to walk on eggshells for fear of causing offense. As a society, we need to be able to make fun of President #44 just as often, and laugh just as loud, as we did at Presidents #43 and #42. Increasingly, I see that happening.

Also, as I've said a time or two before here on this blog (and I'll repeat this many more times for emphasis as I plead guilty to broken record charges), all the identity-based firsts are a huge deal, and they really do matter. That applies whether we're talking about Jackie Robinson, Daniel Inouye, Sandra Day O'Connor, Barack Obama, or Sonia Sotomayor.


Because as soon as that barrier breaks, it means when the *second* comes around, identity will be far less of an issue. And that's real progress.

As someone who loves this country, and who harbors equal loathing for the bigots way out on the Right and the race-monger conspiracy theorists on the Left, I care about this tremendously.

And I really mean it when I say I think we're on the way there.

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