We seem to be up to our ears in race-based policies and race-based thinking. As a result, we seem to be further away than ever from Martin Luther King’s goal of a color-blind society. If our government won’t behave as Dr. King hoped it would, maybe the answer is for each of us to act in a color-blind manner.
I may once have been a teacher, but I can always be a slow learner. And while I did teach history, I can sometimes be quite forgetful about dates. Just when was it that Justice Sandra Day O’Connor instructed us that affirmative action should remain on the books for another twenty-five years? We must be close to being there by now. If not, we’re surely close enough for government work.
Instead we seem to be up to our ears in race-based policies and race-based thinking. As a result, we seem to be further away from Martin Luther King’s goal of a color-blind society than was the case when he delivered his great speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. .
If our government won’t behave as Dr. King hoped it would, maybe the answer is for each of us to act in a color-blind manner, whether or not we’ve reached the limit of Justice O’Connor’s timetable. This is not a call to repeal the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s. Nor is it to call into question the real progress in race relations that has taken place since then. Instead it is a call to individual action.
Whether past progress can be attributed to legislative initiatives or to the innate goodwill and good sense of the vast majority of American citizens—or some combination thereof, is impossible to sort out. What ought to be beyond debate is that it’s high time that each of us, individually, puts Martin Luther King’s call to the test.
Sorry Justice O’Connor. This needs to be done now. Sorry also to everyone who believes that this country has always been and still remains systemically racist.
Of course, this may well be easier said than done. What might help this process along is culling through our own personal histories. I’d wager that folks of all racial hues have had racial “eureka moments” of one sort or another. This includes aging white guys, such as yours truly. By such a moment I mean a sudden awareness of the unimportance, even irrelevance, of skin color, coupled with a gradual realization of the damage that thinking along racial lines can do.
Here’s where my slow learning, date-challenged self comes into play. Just how old was I when my most vivid “eureka moment” occurred? Probably about fifty.
The scene was the opening night of a weekly American history evening class. I was well into my first lecture when a young black student entered the room. He was easily half an hour late. Passing up empty seats near the back of the room, he weaved his way to a seat right in front of me. Within a few minutes he was offering comments and asking questions. Ignoring his late arrival, I did my best to respond to what he had to say. And that, I thought, would be that.
Except that it wasn’t. The next week saw a repeat of the first class. Once again he arrived on the decidedly late side, and once again I said nothing. Once again, he had plenty to say, all without a clue as to the context of the class—and all without an objection from me.
But at the break I called him aside to ask a question of my own: What’s up? You’re obviously interested in the material, but you’ve been quite late twice. Why? The bus schedule, he replied.
OK, I responded. I don’t lock the doors once class starts. But if you’re on the same schedule next week take an open seat in the back and, oh yes, wait a while before jumping in. He agreed to both requests. And that, I thought, would finally be that.
Except that it wasn’t. Week three began as a repeat of the first two. Once again he was late, and once again he ignored open seats in the back and negotiated his way to a seat right in front of me. But there was one difference: this time he kept his mouth shut, preoccupied as he was unwrapping a fast food meal on his desk.
While he set about his business, I tried to go about mine. That meant continuing to lecture, while pretending that what was going right on in front of me wasn’t really happening.
There he was, preparing his dinner. There I was, preparing to let him eat it. And there was the rest of the class, paying little attention to me and plenty of attention to our dinner guest.
It was in the middle of all this that my “eureka moment” finally hit. While surely making next to no sense on the historical topic of the moment, I suddenly came to my senses, as I muttered to myself, “if this is a white kid, he’s toast.” My muttering continued: “By doing nothing I’m treating people differently simply because they happen to have a different skin color. What is that if not a kind of racism? So this black kid is about to be toasted.”
At that moment I changed the subject—whatever it was. Halting the lecture, I stared at the would-be burger-muncher in front of me, and started in. The exchange went something like this: “If you’re going to have your supper, go down to the cafeteria.”
“I’m here to learn.”
“Then put the food away”
“But I’m hungry.”
“The choice is yours. Eat there or learn here.”
With a stunned look on his face, he rewrapped his dinner, remained in his seat, and that, finally, was that.
Except that it wasn’t quite. Is this a story of a student testing a teacher? Probably. Is it also a story of a teacher besting a student? Not in my eyes. It was something else entirely. It was a “eureka moment”—at least for me and maybe for both of us.
Was that, finally, that? No. My student and I continued our relationship to the end of that course and through another one. He did very well in both. Since then, we have become—and remain—friends. Eureka moments can have that kind of impact. And, oh, by the way, he was on time the rest of the semester.
My guess is that this sort of thing happens a lot. My second guess is that at this point in our country’s racial history such moments offer the best hope for realizing Dr. King’s dream. More laws and edicts aren’t the answer. Allegedly frank conversation on race and racism aren’t the answer. Policies designed to advantage racial groups aren’t the answer. Reparations for slavery aren’t the answer. Indicting the country for something called systemic racism isn’t the answer. And any magical Supreme Court-mandated date isn’t the answer.
In brief, there is no official answer. Nor should there be. But we do have something potentially quite powerful at our disposal—and in our own hands. We have eureka moments to experience and share. We have such moments to remember or await—and certainly to learn from. Through them we can move ever closer to the racially decent society that we all desire and have long been ready to embrace.
Will this simple recipe be enough? It can be. Better yet, it has to be. After all, if we can’t presume that the vast, vast majority of Americans are decent, how can we possibly place our hopes for racial justice and racial peace anywhere else?
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