The race riots of the sixties were my coming of age story. For the first time, a lot of us were exposed to a level of racism we hadn’t know existed anymore in our wonderful, post-World War II America. My parents had mentioned the prejudice their parents endured when they immigrated from Italy at the turn of the 20th century. But aside from what I learned in school about the Civil War, I knew nothing. I mean really nothing about the issues facing African Americans in America.
The closest I ever came to a conversation with my parents on the topic was when my mother made it clear that Corinne would be in every Tuesday to clean and we kids needed to understand that if Corinne said something to us, it was the same as if mom did.
Corinne was black. Until I moved to Brooklyn after college, she was the only black person I knew. And what I knew was that she was sweet and gentle and my mother would kill us if we ever disrespected her or didn’t listen when she told us something. She and my mother became friends. Mom visited her until the day she died and always told us, with awe in her voice, how Corinne raised two college educated sons on her cleaning lady’s salary.
Given this was my sole experience up close and personal with a black person, when I got to Brooklyn I found it rather natural to make friends with black people there. I worked with them, shared meals with them and invited them to my apartment. That’s when the trouble hit. A young black couple had come to dinner and the husband had gone out on the stoop to have an after dinner cigarette. The next day my landlady, who lived in the downstairs apartment, stopped me to tell me I was upsetting the neighbors by the friends I brought home. The message wasn’t exactly subtle.
So when the race riots of the 60s happened, I had at least a little understanding of the problems that black people faced in America every day. Here’s the thing though. I thought since those days of the 60s race riots and violence that America learned something. I thought we’d gotten healthier in our race relations. I thought we’d tuned into our better selves.
But the riots occurring today make it clear we didn’t. My generation didn’t break old racist habits or convince racists they were wrong. Seems like all my generation accomplished was making African Americans more prominent in American civil society while pushing the racists into deep dark holes where they spun their brand of hate in more subtle ways. And then a cop kneels on a black man’s neck and kills him, slowly and painfully, while cameras role and people watch. And the horror at the level of racism still clearly strong in our society becomes extremely obvious. Had that been a white man on the ground and a black cop kneeling on his neck, someone in the crowd with a gun would have probably shot and killed the cop.
How is this still America? How can we have come such a short distance in such a long period of time? How can those riots of the sixties have achieved so little?
My heart breaks every time I turn the tv on and see America burning… again. Will we learn the lesson this time? Will we actually work to make the systemic changes needed to end this cycle of racial hatred and pain? Right now I’m not feeling very positive that we will. In fact, I’m feeling downright discouraged. And I’m an old white lady who has never had to fear the police because white privilege, it turns out, is alive and well in America.
Fifty years later the same rage races through our streets because we have done so little in those 50 years to truly stamp out the racism that has stained the soul of this country. I don’t know what America’s future will be. But I do know that until we get past the idea that the color of someone’s skin somehow defines them and their distant horizons, we will never have a great future.