Preface: This article is intended to provide a straight-forward, unedited view of my perception of the treatment of minorities as a young white boy growing up in the Midwest. In that vein, I use the derogatory terms for minorities that were commonly used in those days as a literary device to illustrate how far we have come while acknowledging we have a long way to go in our quest to fulfill Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vision that a person be judged by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin.
In my last blog, I mentioned that my childhood was a kinder gentler time. As I re-read that sentence, it dawned on me that for many people that time was neither kind nor gentle.
I was 11 years old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Like most people, I was caught up in the patriotic fervor of the day. We were taught that this “sneak attack” was characteristic of these “sneaky little slant-eyed devils.” We applauded the imprisonment of all people of Japanese descent, even if they were American citizens. Preservation of national security and the suspicion that these Japanese Americans couldn’t be trusted, was the rationale used to effectively imprison American citizens without being charged with a crime. Of course the word “prison” was not used and this completely unconstitutional act was justified by saying they would be interned only for the duration of the war. Most of these people lived in California, and there was concern that if Japan invaded the West Coast many Japanese Americans would be involved in sabotage. A large percentage of these “detained citizens” were farmers who owned some of the best farmland in the country. When the war ended, they found themselves homeless because their farms had been sold for back taxes.
The war in Europe had been going on for some time, but there was little note of the persecution of Jews by Hitler. Anti-semitism was rife in the U.S., and I can recall overhearing conversations where adults blamed the Depression (and poverty in general) on “those New York Jews.” Consequently, when a ship full of German Jews appeared on the East Coast, they were denied asylum and turned away, eventually returning to Europe to await their fate.
African Americans were drafted into the military in large numbers, but usually assigned to non-combatant roles. It was not until 1948 that Harry Truman issued an executive order to desegregate the military. A number of years later, I happened to be reading a story in The Reader’s Digest that was written by the first African American man granted a commission in the Navy. He recounted the bigotry that still existed when he was commissioned, but made mention of one person who had been supportive. I am proud to say that person was one of my cousins, Travis Van Horn.
Higher paying jobs were denied to African-Americans. They were excluded from most factory work and if they were hired it would be to do the “dirty work” or to clean the premises. They were denied membership in most trade unions so that only positions as laborers were all that were available to them. For example if working on a construction job, a black man would be mixing the mortar and carrying the bricks while a white guy would be laying them. These factors contributed to higher unemployment among blacks and more poverty in black neighborhoods, but the average white person would explain the cause to be laziness. Black women’s job opportunities were largely limited to domestic help, or cleaning of offices or motels.
In my position as a WASP (White Anglo Saxon Protestant) in a middle class neighborhood, I didn’t have much contact with black kids. There were a few in our schools, but most attended schools in black neighborhoods. No black family would ever dare move into a white neighborhood. Statements meant to deny racism such as “I have nothing against niggers, but I wouldn’t want one to move in next door or my daughter to marry one” were common.
Higher paying jobs were denied to African-Americans. They were excluded from most factory work and if they were hired it would be to do the “dirty work” or to clean the premises. They were denied membership in most trade unions so that only positions as laborers were all that were available to them. For example if working on a construction job, a black man would be mixing the mortar and carrying the bricks while a white guy would be laying them. These factors contributed to higher unemployment among blacks and more poverty in black neighborhoods, but the average white person would explain the cause to be laziness. Black women’s job opportunities were largely limited to domestic help, or cleaning of offices or hotels.
Generally I believe that even here in a small town in the Midwest it was commonly held that black people were intellectually inferior, oversexed and smelled badly. They were not required to go to the back of the bus, they did so because they “knew their place.” During my childhood, there were still occasional reports of lynching in the South. Although such murders were generally disparaged, I don’t recall a huge public outcry, but then kids don’t pay much attention to the news.
The Bubble of Bigotry
Even though I was immersed in a culture of bigotry, I was mostly oblivious to it. Yes, I had wondered why the black kids all chose to sit in the balcony at the movies, and I was aware that the local skating rink was open to blacks only on Monday nights. I knew that a nearby ice cream store was closed on Monday nights, but never made the connection. There were two side by side swimming pools in our town presumably to make us feel that we were doing well by satisfying the separate but equal mantra. The schools were integrated in theory. There were no separate water fountains or rest rooms, but a quarterback on the football team would have been unthinkable.
The first time I can recall feeling much empathy for African Americans occurred while I was a teenager working at my father’s service station. A black family pulled into the station to get gasoline. Their license plate indicated they were from a neighboring state. As I was filling the tank, the father crossed the street to a nearby restaurant, knocked on the back door, and returned with food for his family. It suddenly dawned on me how demeaning this must be for a person to be excluded from even entering this dumpy little restaurant, let alone not being allowed to feed his family there. Until then, I had not noticed that black folks did not eat in our restaurants.
Equal Opportunity Bigotry
Our prejudices were not limited to African Americans, we were equal opportunity bigots. Words* such as WOP, dago, kraut, heinie, hun, chink, jap, nip, Pollock, towel head, kike, frog, and nigger were all part of our everyday vocabulary. There were many jokes about “dumb Pollocks” and “Irish drunks.” We were tolerant of other religions, but only barely. Discrimination against Catholics and Jews was more subtle than it was for people who had a different skin color, and the non-WASPs reciprocated by keeping a superficial but cordial relationship with us. Many families were fragmented by interfaith marriages. After all it was the Jews who murdered Jesus, and the Pope was felt by many to be a dictator intent on world domination, in some cases even considered the devil incarnate. Indeed, even marriages between people of the same religion, such as Catholicism, but different cultures (Italian or Irish) were considered controversial.
Western movies were a favorite amongst us kids and cowboys and Indians was a favorite game. As in the movies, the ones who got to be cowboys were the good guys and the Indians were ruthless savages. No one bothered to tell us how they had been displaced from their lands, persecuted and ethnically cleansed. Nor did we learn anything about their customs. Here in the land of the free they were not permitted to practice their own religion or even speak their own language. We of course were blissfully ignorant of all this.
*Etymology of Slurs
WOP = a term used to describe Italian immigrants and stood for With Out Papers
Dago = is thought to be from the Spanish term Diego and was a slur used to describe Italians.
Heinie= term referred to Germans, in which the origin is probably the German colloquial word Heini, which is loosely translated as idiot or moron.
Nips= shortened for the Japanese word for Japan, which is Nippon
Kike = several theories on this etymology of this Jewish slur. Some say it originated at Ellis Island when Jewish people who didn’t write English refused to sign with an X because it represented the Christian cross so they would sign with a circle. Keikl is the Yiddish word for circle.
The problems of the aforementioned folks, pale in comparison to that of the so called “sexual deviant.” This term is very telling for it might be defined as any kind of sexual activity which deviates from the “norm,” which was in actuality often interpreted as any type of sexual activity other than that performed in the missionary position. Prescribed punishments for these deviants was codified in so called sodomy laws and varied from two to 10 years in prison depending on the state. Consequently, homosexuals attempted to satisfy their needs in secret.
Men living together would surely raise questions so they would secretly “cruise” to find willing partners. Parks and public restrooms were the places where they could meet, and engage in clandestine sexual activity. These areas became labeled as public nuisances.
Homophobia was rampant, fueled by misinformation equating homosexuality with pedophilia, bestiality and all other manner of criminal behavior. Gay men were not only at risk of contracting venereal diseases, but also becoming the object of a “gay bashing party” which could be administered either by redneck homophobes or police. In some cases, arrest and resultant exposure could have caused even more devastating results.
Some had married in an attempt to hide their homosexuality or in the mistaken belief that they could change their sexual orientation. Exposure could literally destroy their lives. The stress of living under such a cloud took a toll and suicide rates among gays were higher than in the general population.
Did the Rampant Poverty of the Depression Encourage Bigotry?
In a previous blog I had mentioned that I was “a child of The Depression.” My own family suffered through that period along with millions of others. I’ve often wondered if the struggle for basic needs led to more prejudice and bigotry as all people struggled for the scraps to survive. Or, did it just allow more people who might have disagreed with unfair treatment of minorities to ignore it due to their instinct for self-preservation? As in the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, it is difficult for one to aspire to self-actualization and championing a cause for others when scrambling each day to feed his family?
My father had been unemployed, and had lost our home to foreclosure. I was not aware of my family’s financial woes and had no idea that we were poor. It never occurred to me to question our frequent moves, or why our parents sometimes insisted we eat before they came to the table. Occasionally there was “surplus” food available at the local “relief office,” and I do recall Dad coming home one time with a gigantic cloth sack of rice. Subsequently we daily ate every kind of rice dish imaginable long enough that to this day I have an aversion to rice.
As I’ve grown older, I see this as a credit to phenomenal selfless parenting I was afforded. My parent’s ability to sacrifice in order to make me feel safe and secure during a time of extreme poverty is something at which I marvel today. Hence, I didn’t grow up feeling like a victim or insecure.
My father’s friends congregated most nights at our house to discuss their successes and failures at finding work. I recall lying on the floor listening to their conversations as they discussed strategies or rumors of where a day’s labor might be available amid speculation as to whether they had enough gasoline to get there and back. In retrospect, my father’s home brew was probably the real attraction. One of those nights comes to mind which I choose to relate in spite of the risk of offending the sensitivities of any SPCA or PETA members who may be reading this. Dad had received a live rooster in return for some work he had done for a farmer, and when the guys assembled in our cellar for one of the brews, dad decided to offer the rooster a sample. He gobbled it quickly and was given a refill. The poor rooster was immediately tipsy and began to stagger around the room, lift his head and attempt to crow. If he had a hangover, it would have been short lived for he would be in a pot with some drop dumplings the following day.
For many there were no fond memories of those times. The basics of food and shelter were not available to all. There were essentially no social safety nets. In retrospect, it amazes me that there was not more civil unrest or even revolution in the face of such ubiquitous suffering. I suppose hope stayed alive partially due to Roosevelt’s programs and reassurances that things would improve. He was a public relations genius and I recall how everyone who could get near a radio would tune in to his “fireside chats.”
The Great Depression spawned a new type of homeless person who came to be called the hobo. Homeless people were not permitted to sleep in parks or other public places. There were vagrancy laws which made it illegal to be destitute; consequently many unemployed homeless men kept on the move. It seems they were much like Forrest Gump who started running and just didn’t stop. They sometimes hopped freight trains or rode the rails, but could often be seen walking along the highways. Theirs was a rather solitary existence; although through the years they had developed a subculture, and would share with each other the whereabouts of likely places to get free food and other logistical information. For example they would learn which towns were tolerant of begging and which jails to avoid. At times there might be chance meetings under a railroad bridge or other secluded spot where several might stay for a few days until rousted out by the authorities. Their routes of travel tended to follow the seasons much as do migrating birds, and they would rarely be seen in our area when cold weather set in. Since my grandparents’ farm was located on a well traveled state route they were subject to frequent visits. The hobo or tramp as they were sometimes called would offer to do work for food. Grandma would thank him for offering, decline his help, and bring a plate of food out on the back porch for him. The transaction was mutually beneficial as his hunger was satiated as was her need to do her Christian duty.
After The Great Depression
By the early fo1940s, things were beginning to improve for most families thanks to the war effort. In short order a decade of massive unemployment morphed into a labor shortage as factories were converted to produce planes, tanks, guns, and ammunitions. The draft was in full swing, and out of desperation, women were hired to work in the factories. It has been said that nothing unites a people like a common enemy. That was certainly the case during WWII, for our hatred focused on those terrible people, the Japs and the Germans. It seemed as if generations of ethnic strife was put aside in order to deal with a common threat.
My family, as did many others, soon moved to the big city where they both found work in an airplane factory. My brother was drafted into the army at 18 and a few months later found himself in the Battle of the Bulge. My parents would cringe whenever they saw a Western Union telegraph delivery person in the neighborhood for fear that he would be heading to our house with the dreaded message which began: “We regret to inform you…”
As the months passed, many blue stars hanging in front windows were replaced with gold ones. At a time when over 60 million people were being killed, not to mention 6 million Jews, it is ludicrous to say this was a kinder and gentler time. However, it does seem in the face of this worldwide catastrophe, people did seem to be more caring.
Following the cessation of hostilities it was not long until anger began to emerge. The civil rights movement changed laws but I am afraid not many attitudes. Recently I sense a backlash. For example things like preferential treatment legislated for minority groups leads to resentment on the people who feel they are being punished for the sins of their fathers. If history is any judge then these feelings will also fester and conflict will continue as always.
Self-identification is an interesting concept. There are some identifiers we can’t avoid, such as skin color or gender. There are other identifiers we choose, such as religious affiliation or being a member of a fraternity or sorority. It appears humans have always found ways to group themselves to be part of a smaller community versus embracing the idea that we are all part of the human race. We all want to be heard. We all want to be understood. To be loved. To be happy.
It reminds me of a story my daughter tells about her son who attended a Summer Bible Camp with a neighbor. Little did she know the zealous nature of the camp until her six-year-old son told her how each day before lunch, the preacher would call for true Christians to come to the front to be saved. In addition to being saved, they would get a prize from the toy box and a snack. Simon refused to go to the front of the room to be saved by the preacher. His neighbor pleaded with him, “Don’t you want to be saved, Simon? Don’t you want to be a Christian?” to which Simon responded, “I just want to be Simon.”
Now we are once again experiencing violent demonstrations, and there is little sign of true reconciliation.
The frustrations and injustices suffered by the citizens of Ferguson are undoubtedly well founded. They are reminiscent of the riots of 1992 in Los Angeles. This was precipitated by the beating of a black man by police officers from the LAPD, which was recorded on video tape. His name was Rodney King and his tearful statement was perhaps the most eloquent and wise question of all when he said “Can we all just get along?” Of course there has been progress in the area of black white relations, and the “N” word has supplanted the “F” word as the most profane of utterances. But as my grandfather once said, “Just because you don’t say it, don’t mean you don’t think it.”