Back in 2002, my then-roommate, Tom,* and I got into a discussion about racial and gender equality. I stated that all of the various civil rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, starting with the abolitionist movement, were necessary to instigate change and make America live up to its declaration as a truly free and inclusive nation. Tom merely shook his head no in a condescending fashion and said, “Nah,” later adding that eventually people would have “come around” and realize discrimination was wrong.
I looked at him like the fool he was and asked him if he sincerely believed that. He said he did. I then recounted the story of my father’s return from Korea in the mid-1950s. He had been drafted into the U.S. Army and sent to the front lines in the midst of the Korean War. Among the many friends he made were a large contingent of Black soldiers. By then, the U.S. armed forces had been forcibly integrated, so a mix of ethnic groups comprised all the various military units. My father didn’t serve his full two-year stint, as the war ended sooner than most anyone had expected. He and several of his fellow soldiers arrived in Seattle via ship and then boarded a train to head to their various home cities. My father was confused when his Black team mates started walking away from. He called out to them, asking where they were going. One told him they were headed towards the rear caboose – where Black people had to sit. As he watched his friends, his brothers-in-arms, saunter down the platform, my father said to himself, “Oh yea, we’re back in America – land of the free.”
Tom just sort of looked at me, not knowing what to say. He conceded it was wrong, even then, to force Blacks to sit at the back of a bus or a train. But, he snapped out of his brief foray into actual reasoning and reiterated that eventually White people would have realized how unfair that was. In other words, we didn’t bus strikes or protests of any kind. People should have just waited around, hoping for the better.
No one should have to wait for justice and fairness. Nobody should be straddled to the rocks of oppression and brutality – hoping, praying and begging for those in positions of power and influence to see the light. Disenfranchised groups in the U.S. had waited for centuries to be treated with dignity and respect and to be given an equal chance to succeed.
I told someone else around the same time as my conversation with Tom that the 1960s exploded with anger and rage because patience had finally run out. They’d done everything that had been asked of them: they served in the military; they worked hard; they cleaned homes and streets; they obeyed the laws (no matter how discriminatory they were); they tried as best to keep to themselves – everything. And, they still weren’t given a fair chance. Blacks still had to sit at the back of the bus; women still had to change their last names when they got married and still had to have children; Indians still had to live in squalor on reservations; gays and lesbians still had to suppress their true identities.
And so, by the 1960s, everything just sort of erupted at once. If change didn’t come through peace and hard work, then it had to be forced. America was compelled to fulfill its proclamation as a nation of freedom and opportunity. It no longer had a choice in the matter. The time had come to change – whether some folks liked it or not.
It was curious to hear Tom speak of racial and gender equality and inequality. He was a mix of German and Cherokee; from a small, nondescript community in far northeast Texas. We discussed the plight of Indigenous Americans more than once. He felt that Indians could have fought back against European encroachers because they also had men. I noted that Europeans had two primary advantages: guns and horses. Moreover, they’d adopted both gunpowder and horse-riding skills from the Chinese. Tom wasn’t moved. And, I told him he now had the distinction of falling into two unique groups: those who aren’t educated about a subject and those who don’t want to be educated. That’s actually a rarity, but one that persists even now; in this second decade of the 21st century with a biracial U.S. president and a shrinking White majority.
Attitudes really are hard to change.