Afterthought: America Moves On

Today’s Machining World Archives March 2011 Volume 07 Issue 02

Noah and I are huge basketball fans. We were recently talking NBA and Noah broached the idea that you could have a great all-star team of mixed-race players with Blake Griffin, shoo-in rookie of the year, leading the way.

I know this is a politically incorrect topic to write about, but I think it is a really important topic—so what the heck.

Race relations have been the dominant issue in America in my lifetime. Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in Major League Baseball in 1947, but it was six more years until the Chicago Cubs brought in the great Ernie Banks to play shortstop for my team. As a young kid, my conception of a black-white relationship was shaped by my friendship with our family’s maid, Thelma Lee Jefferson, and the images of Banks and Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, and Jr. Gillian on TV, along with basketball stars Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain. All were very dark skinned, and we called them “Negroes.” American life was still black and white.

My grammar school was tribal and racial with 48 kids in a class. The teachers were almost all Irish female lifers in the Chicago Public School System.

We sat in rows of eight, dictated by grades or the teacher’s conception of smarts. The classroom was almost totally segregated with black kids on one side of the room and white kids on the other. We rarely ever talked to each other, so inviting the black kids to the house would have seemed ridiculous.

But we lived on the south side of Chicago, so black people were all around us—and were to be feared. The public high school that I would have attended was 90 percent black, so in my parents’ minds the options were to move or send me and my siblings to a private school—and there was a very good one 10 minutes from the house, University High School, a part of the University of Chicago.

High school in Chicago was the time I started recognizing my own and my culture’s endemic racism. I played high school basketball and several teammates were black. We connected on the court but not much socially. I noticed black women in classes, but I was afraid to talk to them. The social boundaries were so clearly defined that they didn’t need to be articulated. To us, black people were dangerous. You had to be careful to not touch. I also had the Jewish identity test as an ongoing challenge. Date only Jewish women—don’t even talk to non-Jewish women because God forbid, “you could get involved,” my parents instilled in me.

This was my America “back in the day.”

My America has changed. I have changed. America has begun to become a mixed race country.

While I was desperately trying to wall myself off from racial connection, my human side was observing the civil rights movement and the hypocrisy of our divided and fearful country.

I chose to raise my family in an integrated community and send my kids to integrated public schools, a rarity in the Chicago area. I studied my own racism—the gut fear that made me sees danger when I saw a black man walking toward me.

I am a victim of American racism—and of my own knee jerk racism. The synapses of fear fire indiscriminately no matter how I cognitively reject them. I despise my racism, but it is an omnipresent companion, like knee pain.

But I have changed. I have real black friends. Many of my neighbors are black. Most of the customers at my local Starbucks are black.

The most respected baseball player today—not the best, but the most respected—is Derek Jeter, of mixed parenthood. Jason Kidd, Joachim Noah, Tony Parker, Blake Griffin, etc. make an NBA all-star team.

And now we have Barack Obama as President. Case closed. America has changed in my lifetime. In the bad old days it was said we could never elect a Catholic—and then we voted in John F. Kennedy. Maybe a Jewish Michael Bloomberg will be next in 2012.

Racism is still strong in America. It is deep in the bones. But the beauty of this great country is that it does change. It gets better. It gets worse, but it keeps moving.

In business and life we tend to get stuck in our pasts. They will always affect us—but they do not own us.

Lloyd Graff

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