I was 22 when Martin Luther King gave his ‘I have a dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln memorial to people packed behind him and 250,000 people in front of him. Last Saturday I saw Martin Luther King III stand on the same spot and give a speech with no one behind him and a small fraction of the original crowd in front of him.
I didn’t pay attention to the speeches in 1963 and people don’t seem to be paying attention in 2013.
I didn’t need to listen in 1963, or so I thought. From 1958 to 1963 I’d worked as a lifeguard in African American neighborhoods.
As manager of an all-white staff I walked the pool deck enforcing rules on opening days, hoping some child would complain I was picking on him because his skin was black. I would raise my voice and wave my arms in faux anger saying we treated everybody the same.
We believed we were fair.
We were validated when a local gang leader, rumored to have killed a man in self-defense, led men in their mid-twenties into the pool full of youngsters. A lifeguard quickly told me the gang leader wore his sun glasses on the deck, implying I needed to enforce the rule against sun glasses. Thanks a lot.
I wore my sunglasses to hide my fear when I told him he couldn’t wear them. He said I wore them, so I explained we wore them to protect our eyes, but to avoid broken glass we had to enforce rules equally.
“That what we hear,” he said and took them off.
He left a short time later, but he’d motivated me to stay fair.
With my comfort working with African Americans, why would I need to listen to King?
Besides, King spoke at my virtually all-white mid-Michigan private college. Considering myself somewhat of an inter-racial expert, I told classmates blacks should have equal treatment, but they weren’t ready for the responsibility without more education.
That indifferent ignorance lasted through the continuing violence against the civil rights movement until my church sponsored sensitivity training about discrimination.
Our community’s new, young African American Boy Scout Executive described his experience house hunting about 1970. A realtor showed the couple only low-income housing inside almost all black Muskegon Heights, Michigan, a city established to house southern laborers who had arrived to man foundries during WWII. The couple purchased a home below their expectations based on his new salary.
When they were invited to a neighborhood in an adjacent city minutes from their home, they saw houses they dreamed of owning. He stopped the car while his wife sobbed.
The all black neighborhood around the pool I managed pool was created in WWII for the same reason.
I was blind to feelings of discrimination. I had been fair working with African Americans, so what else could possibly be expected of me?
I learned I couldn’t trust my experience to understand minorities’ feelings. I had to listen to them and honor their feelings of discrimination.
From the empty steps at the Lincoln memorial, resistance to fair immigration reform, passage of restrictive voting rights acts and surprise at African American angry reactions to the innocent verdict in the Trayvon Martin killing, I don’t think we’re listening to minorities’ feelings of discrimination.
My relatives in inter-racial marriage confess they feel it regularly from police stops and questions by service personnel. Their experiences restrict where they’re willing to live and how they behave in public. They feel discrimination when they visit our area.
Two or three weeks ago a local mother said her two children grew up around Hispanics until they moved into their new neighborhood. She believes her children have become uncomfortable playing with Hispanics and hearing Spanish. She wants more interaction.
Most people are fair and believe they’re fair. I believe I’m fair. With that self-confidence it’s hard to believe serious discrimination exists.
But I can’t trust my experience to know when Hispanics and African Americans feel discrimination.
They say they are feeling discrimination. I should honor their experience by believing them.
Phooey. I don’t want to hear that.