I was watching a local Dallas, Texas, television station interviewing protestors in a crowd that had descended on Dallas City Hall after the killing of George Floyd. Individuals in the crowd were asked, “Why are you protesting?” Some said, “I’m protesting against police violence.” But most gave an answer that really surprised me. Over and over I heard these words: “I’m protesting against systemic racism.” Young protestors in the streets using an academic phrase?
Providing a Definition
Now, that is not a phrase that would naturally roll off the tongues of street protestors, nearly all of whom were in their teens and twenties. It had to be supplied by the protest organizers. I kept hoping that the TV interviewer would ask one of the people what they meant by the phrase because I was certain none of them had the slightest idea what it meant — either because of naiveté or a lack of historical knowledge and perspective.
The word, systemic, is defined as something that is ingrained throughout a whole system — something that is intentional, methodical or implemented according to a plan. Thus, “systemic racism” in reference to a nation would mean that everything in the society is designed to discriminate against one or more races. The former policy of Apartheid in South Africa would be a classic example.
Now, with that definition in mind, just try to wrap your brain around the insanity of someone in Dallas, Texas, protesting against “systemic racism.” The top governmental official in Dallas is the City Manager, who is a black man. Additionally, the Mayor is a black man, the Police Chief is a black woman, the District Attorney is a “progressive” black man, and the Sheriff is a black woman. The previous Sheriff, who resigned to run for Governor, was an Hispanic lesbian. I ask you, where is the “systemic racism”?
I happen to know very well the meaning of “systemic racism.” That’s because I grew up in it. I was born in Texas in 1938, and I was raised in the 1940s and 50s when racism was interwoven in the fabric of our nation. Everything was segregated, and I mean everything — schools, hotels, sports arenas, restaurants, public transportation, movie theaters, churches and yes, even drinking fountains.
One of the most important ways of keeping blacks “in their place” was to deny them the right to vote. There were a variety of barriers to voting, like the poll-tax, which was essentially a voting fee. This technique was not outlawed until the passage of the 24th Amendment in 1964.
Literacy tests were another technique used to limit black voting. An illiterate white person would always miraculously pass the test, while a black who could read and understand Shakespeare, just never could seem to read well enough to qualify.
Always lurking in the background in many states was the Ku Klux Klan, which was more than willing to intimidate blacks from voting.
Blacks were mainly confined to manual labor jobs. Access to professions like law, medicine and teaching were highly limited. The military was segregated.
The President of the United States during my childhood years was Franklin Roosevelt. Although he was a liberal icon, he did nothing to improve race relations. That’s because the key to his powerful political coalition was what was referred to as the “Solid South,” and he was unwilling to do anything that might jeopardize Southern support.
He was first elected in 1932 and was re-elected for a second term in 1936. In 1937, he had his first opportunity to nominate a Supreme Court justice. His selection was a U.S. Senator from Alabama named Hugo Black. This man had been a lawyer for the Klan and was on record as having said terrible things about Blacks, Jews and Catholics. He was confirmed easily by the Senate by a vote of 63 to 16. Can you even imagine such a person being nominated today?
Right before our nation got involved directly in World War II, President Roosevelt made his most daring decision regarding race relations. In June of 1941, he created by Executive Order the Fair Employment Practice Committee. Its assigned purpose was to prevent “discrimination in the employment of workers in defense industries or government because of race, creed, color or national origin.” But this applied only to the national government. Beyond this, the President realized he was walking on eggs, and he had no desire to break any of them.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, President Roosevelt very quickly issued an Executive Order in February of 1942 that constituted one of the worst racist actions in our nation’s history. Incredibly, he ordered all Japanese Americans arrested and sent to ten internment camps located in seven states. They were kept there for the duration of the war. This was obviously a very racist decision since no similar action was taken against Americans of German heritage despite the fact that we were also at war with Germany.
The President’s highly unconstitutional action was upheld by the Supreme Court in December 1944 by a vote of 6 to 3. Justice Hugo Black wrote the majority opinion. Again, can you even imagine something like this happening in America today?
Personal Experiences with Racism
Although I am a white man, I have personally experienced the emotional pain of racism three times — twice as a child and once as an adult. The first occasion occurred in 1948 when I was ten years old. One of my dad’s younger brothers came to visit us in Waco, Texas, for a couple of weeks. He had worked during World War II in the Pearl Harbor shipyards in Hawaii. During that time he had met and married a beautiful and very sweet lady of Asian descent who had been born and raised in Hawaii. Her name was Rosie.
One Saturday while they were visiting with us, it was decided, for some reason I can’t remember, that I should take Rosie downtown and accompany her while she was doing some shopping. So, we took the bus and spent the morning going from store to store. As noon approached, Rosie asked if I knew where we could get a sandwich before returning home. I told her I knew where there was a soda fountain.
When we arrived, there were two stools available that were adjacent to each other, so we sat down and waited to be served. And we waited and waited and waited. Finally, I grew impatient, so I leaned across the bar and grabbed the arm of a waitress who was walking by. I said, “Ma’am, we’ve been waiting a long time. Could you take our order?” She stepped back, looked at my aunt and then back at me. Then, she snarled, “I don’t serve Japs!” I was embarrassed and enraged, but before I could say anything, Rosie put her arm around my shoulders and whispered, “It’s okay, David; let’s go home.”
Two years later, in 1950, my parents bought a very nice new home in Waco in a very upscale part of town. The house had a detached garage, and above the garage was an apartment. My folks proceeded to rent the apartment to an Asian couple.
Over the next few weeks, my parents received a series of nasty phone calls and hate letters condemning them for renting to Asians. The neighborhood kids picked up on their parents’ attitude and started harassing me, calling me a “Jap lover.”
My worst experience with racism came ten years later in 1960, when my new wife and I moved to Boston, where I was going to attend a Harvard graduate school. We had arranged to stay the first week with a pastor and his wife while I searched for an apartment.
The first morning after our arrival, I surveyed the apartment ads in the Boston paper, selected the ones that were in my price range and started calling. What happened next was something I could not understand. As soon as I would start inquiring about the apartment for rent, the person on the other end of the line would either hang up or interrupt me by saying, “It’s already been rented!” This happened over and over, and it continued the second day. I could never get past my opening words.
Finally, on the third day, I ran across a brutally honest person. He yelled, “I don’t rent to niggers!” That’s when it dawned on me that my Southern accent was my problem. Again, this was 1960 when regional accents were still very strong, before they began to be leveled out by national television. So, I had to start going personally to seek an apartment. Still, what I experienced was nothing compared to a black person who could not even go personally.
That was not the end of the matter. Over the following three years, I came to the realization that Boston was the most outwardly racist city I had ever lived in. The Italians hated the Irish, and the Irish reciprocated. Both of those groups seem to hate Blacks and Jews. When the movie, Exodus, opened in Boston in 1960, hundreds of people demonstrated against it in the street in front of the theater because the film was favorable to the Jewish people.
In the second part of our look at the history of systemic racism in the United States, we will mark the turning point.