This is the first of what will be three reflections this week on the unfolding events in Ferguson, Mo.
I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. I vividly recall the particular form of diversity of my community and the public schools I attended. In 4th grade, I tutored a little girl whose family had just arrived in this country from France. During my elementary years, I befriended a boy who was Persian. I had many friends who were Jewish, in part because roughly 30 percent of the population of my township was Jewish. Many of my neighbors and friends (including my high school sweetheart) were Roman Catholic (indeed, near the end of my father’s career, he was the highest-level executive in the office who was not Catholic).
I did not have a single friend who was black. The reason was simple: there weren’t any African-American children in my classes. I believe that, on my high school graduation day in 1975, there were no more than a dozen African-American teens in my school of 1200 students.
My parents (God bless them both) were very attuned to this reality and concerned about it. Don’t misunderstand me here; neither my mother nor my father were marching for civil rights during the sixties. During the riots in the summer of 1968, they found ways to send the three of us away, just in case.
But in the subtle and powerful ways of my parents, they made sure that I didn’t grow up with the prejudices that would come to be common around me.
One important part of their method was the week I spent at Camp Sarah Gridley the summer I was seven or eight. Ninety percent of the kids at Camp Sarah Gridley were African-American. I was in a distinct and, with my very pale complexion and almost white-blond hair, highly identifiable minority. It was a dramatic role reversal.
Because of other aspects of my parents’ approach to parenting, I didn’t expect to have any problems just because my pigment was different, and I didn’t. I have vivid memories of the “buddy checks” at the waterfront (where I went from being a “rock” to a “tadpole” . . . at least I could float!), raising the hands of two boys whose skin was as dark as mine was light.
They were just boys to me. And I was just a boy to them. Race referred to something you did in relays.
I believe with all my heart that racism is taught, consciously or unconsciously. Sure, we notice observable differences. But the observation of difference is the beginning of the process of evaluation, not the end. What we think of the difference we observe, how we assess the relative value of the difference attributes and those who possess them, that’s something we have to learn.
Some of it is taught through formal discussion, some experientially. The resulting perspective is very much a product, in significant part, of the inputs a child (or adult) receives.
Still, I think I am prejudiced, and race is one of the triggers. Having been held up at gunpoint by two young African-American males in my sophomore year of college, I still have to deal with a visceral reaction to an informal gathering of young black men strolling at night. It’s my problem and I wrestle with it, sometimes very successfully, sometimes not.
Memories have this kind of power. The positive memory of my camp friends, the negative memory of a frightening confrontation . . . both are powerful.
And both can be invoked, without my willing it, by events that I witness, in person or through the media.
There are a lot of memories being invoked by events in Ferguson. We all would be well-served to identify them and deal with them, as best we can, as memories, not as answers or judgments concerning the people of Ferguson and their current struggles.