Living long has its rewards. (It’s problems too, but we won’t go there.) During my lifetime I have seen several movements that brought sweeping changes to our country. When I was growing up the Freedom Riders were making their dangerous journeys down South to integrate restaurants and everything else. They were brave and noble and made a huge impact on so many of us growing up in that era, both black and white. The nation was changed radically by the whole Civil Rights movement. We saw in the papers and on TV white people in the South shout horrible epithets at African-American school children trying to integrate schools. It could not leave one unmoved. When I started teaching in a mixed race school system I saw first hand both the racism and the need for change.
How it saddens me to see these same issues rise to the fore yet again. But to have the conversation in a supposedly post-racial society is important. Racism remains alive. Some of the opposition to our president seems to have no basis in reason, but a knee jerk emotional racism, perhaps unrecognized.
As a teacher it disturbed me when my wonderful African-American male students would tell me how they were harassed in stores. Dad and I had male colleagues of color who told us they were stopped and questioned in their own suburban neighborhoods. I met with Black parents who told me they had to harshly punish their children to prepare them for a larger society that would judge them because of the color of their skin.
Police and teachers, like other civil servants, get the brunt of the blame. But it goes much deeper. It is built into the societal system. Yes, those underpaid over worked civil servants can do something. But the constructs of a racist society need a fundamental re-ordering. Not only these killings of unarmed Black males tell us something is very wrong, but the high incarceration rates of men of color. Bad schools seem to begin a pipeline of African American youth right into prison. When we in the U.S. have higher incarceration rates than even South Africa we have to do something drastically different.
Isabella and I saw the demonstration in front of Westlake Center. I wish I talked to her more about it. Too focused on shopping I guess!! It was small, composed of young people. But haven’t young people always been on the cusp of change? The demonstrations for Civil Rights, the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, even the Stonewall riots and subsequent gay pride actions were largely made up of young people. That gives me hope. We do need change. Maybe the young will lead us.
But a social movement that had the most impact on our family was the movement for gay rights. Recently I read about the Stonewall riots and their aftermath. I am amazed how awful it was for gay people before drag queens and gay homeless kids started fighting with police that day in 1969. The police were the perpetrators of violence against gay people, but they were also part of a larger society that turned people out of jobs and even hospitalized or imprisoned them for being gay. The FBI collected information on gay government workers and had them fired. Senator McCarthy’s infamous hearings did the same. It was a dangerous time to be gay. But the street protests begun there on Christopher Street started a movement. Started a way to be gay and proud.
The line begun at Stonewall to this day makes our lives as a family so different. Maybe in the bad old 50’s and 60’s we would have lost you as a son. We would not have you in our lives because you would feel a need to be closeted. Yet, here we are, ready to celebrate a family Christmas, in provincial Buffalo, with family and friends clamoring to see you and your family. I wish I could thank those Stonewall rioters. They have cleared the way for our family.
While it’s easy to blame police, and maybe they deserve some blame, but also we have to look into our society and our selves. Bigger changes have to be made. And while homophobia has not disappeared, nor has racism, some real changes can and should be made. Laws outlawing discrimination cannot change people’s hearts, but they certainly can change behavior. And that is a great start.