Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr. Observed Jan. 18, 2021

I was born in rural Warren County, Iowa, and grew up there. If there were any Blacks in the county, they were faculty or students at Simpson College and I didn’t know them. We occasionally encountered Blacks from Des Moines swimming at Lake Ahquabi but we avoided any contact. My enlightenment began at Iowa State, where I discovered any Blacks taking the classes I was in were a lot smarter than me and I could always ask them for help.

Most of the time we lived in Chicago, we did not own a car. This meant we took buses and trains everywhere. And I mean anywhere, not necessarily any time. The only serious hassles I remember were in White working class neighborhoods and focused on my beard and haircut (or lack thereof).

About 1971, I did some course evaluations for an unaccredited alternative high school (CAM Academy, aka Christian Action Ministry) (‘unaccredited’ because not all the faculty were certified and many of the students were too young not to be in public schools.) The building was one of very few within a radius of several blocks undamaged by the riots that followed the killing of Martin Luther King, Jr., a couple years earlier. The El stop was a few blocks away and the CAM students didn’t think I should be wandering the neighborhood on my own. After my first trip there, they took it upon themselves to ensure that I was escorted to and from the station. These walks were interesting and uneventful.

Everyone (who wasn’t independently wealthy) in the Department of Education at Chicago, spends time with the Chicago Board of Education. I did mine with the lofty title of Associate Director of Institutional Research at Olive-Harvey City College. (The City Colleges are a network of junior colleges run by the Board of Education.)

The student body was 99% Black; the faculty was 90% White; the administration, of which I was a part, was 50-50; my boss was Black. By the end of my tenure, I may not have been fluent but I was conversant in the local dialect.

To get to campus, I took the Jackson Park El to its southern terminus and transferred to a bus for the last few miles. On one particular trip going home, I travelled with a young Black woman student, who was the teaching assistant for the faculty member that I worked with the most. (We were going the same direction; I didn’t need an escort there.) As we sat together on the train, she (not me) was confronted by a group of young men/boys wearing matching jackets who asked (and I translate loosely), “Why are you with this Caucasian gentleman?” She looked at them coolly and responded inaccurately, “He works for me.” and resumed our conversation about some test results. The last I heard she was in medical school.

But this is about my enlightenment. In one meeting, after I had worked at Olive-Harvey for a few months, a new Director of something was introduced. Whatever the topic under discussion, I found the new member most impressive. Later, when I described the meeting to Doré, she asked, mindful of the racial balance of the administration, whether the new person was Black or White.

I didn’t know; that wasn’t something that I had noted about him. In general, I have no problem recognizing the difference, but in that context, it was equivalent to asking if he wore glasses. (I did know he was a he; as I think about it, I don’t remember any women in any of those staff meetings circa 1975.)

At my very first meeting, when I had been introduced and the College President shook hands with me, I wasn’t sure if he was just hung over or still drunk. From the tone of the meeting, it was obvious he was effectively disengaged, mostly awake, and not the go-to person if you needed anything. This was Chicago; he probably had friends in high places. I’m not sure I was ever in another meeting with him. The go-to person was clearly the Vice President, a slight (physically) Black man with enemies in high places.

He was Timuel Black, social worker, educator, historian, civil rights activist, decorated WWII veteran, president of the Chicago Chapter of the Negro American Labor Council, grandson of slaves, and a plaintiff in law suits about voting rights and affordable housing. I didn’t know any of this at the time; I just knew I was impressed; he was approachable, responsive, committed, and on top of everything. Being a civil rights activist wasn’t a good fit with the City of Chicago, and Mr. Black had been buried as the Vice President of a Black junior college. He was fired by said junior college at the end of year because of friction with the President.

But enough about Mr. Black; let’s talk about me. I was caught in the same purge because the President (allegedly) had a friend who had a friend who was a better fit for Associate Director of Institutional Research.

Times passes and a few years later, we moved to Minneapolis, where we told more than once, “Minneapolis is a great place; there are so few blacks who live here.” We have had more exposure to people of color here than I did in Warren County and we have managed to acquire a few Black friends. One couple, Birdie and Richard (actually from U of Chicago days) moved to a northern suburb of St. Paul and as they were registering their 16-year-old at the local high school, the guidance counselor patted Birdie on the hand and said to this large Black woman recently relocated from Chicago, “Don’t worry, dear; we’ll get your daughter all the help she needs.”

This large Black woman rising to her full height, towering over the desk, responded, “Dearie, my daughter was a star at the University of Chicago Lab School; she will run circles around anyone you have here.”

[Said daughter finished out the year at that high school; transferred to a private school for her senior year; received a full ride scholarship to a private college, including a new computer every year, summer job, and guaranteed job offer after graduation. She dropped out after two years because she was offered a job for more money than her father was making as Director of Certification for the American Academy of Neurology. Her reaction to it all, “If I could play football, I would have gotten a car too.”]

Time passes and many years later, I recounted some of this history, I guess, in an attempt to establish some bone fides after the killing of George Floyd, to a good friend.  To the bit about the all-White Warren County origins, he commented, “Yes, I could tell.”

Somewhat taken aback, I asked, “How did you know I was from Warren County?”

“Never heard of Warren County but I knew it was all White because you don’t look at me when we talk. Look more at [a White woman.]”

Taken still further aback, I immediately had several explanations.

She’s a woman and you’re not; why wouldn’t I look at her?

It’s how we’re sitting; she’s more in my line of sight.

The sun is behind you.

I’m too Midwestern to make eye contact with anyone.

I didn’t offer any of these defenses; that rather felt like saying, “That’s not how I am. Sorry you took it wrong.” Or “I didn’t mean to hit you with that rock; I was throwing at the tree you were standing in front of. Sorry I didn’t see you.” Or didn’t care if I did.

While all of my defenses were at least partially true, I don’t know that any of them are any more real than his perception. While I may claim the status of ‘non-racist’ and my actions may not have been racist in origin (or maybe they were), his perception of them is real and left him feeling just as diminished.

‘Non-racist’ is not the same as ‘anti-racist’. Superficially, one is not doing the wrong things. The other is doing the right things. ‘Anti-racist’ requires some conscious, positive action. That’s just behavior and may be possible in the relatively short term.

On a deeper level, ‘non-racist’ is not thinking or feeling the wrong things and, in a racist world, may be an unattainable ideal. That gets pretty deep into our psyche.

How does one of my age and background become ‘non-racist’ and behave ‘anti-racist’?

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