BLACK LIVES (DO) MATTER / My Story – Part Two – “My Formative Years”

The famous recording artist, James Taylor, has released a new album entitled “American Standards.”  The eighth cut on the album is entitled  “You Have to be Taught.”  I assumed at first hearing the song that it was recently written in response to the Black Lives Matter protests.  The lyrics say that you have to be taught to fear and hate, usually by age six or seven or eight.  The song is especially timely now, but it is not new.  As it turns out, the song was written by Rodgers & Hammerstein in the 1940s. 

The song made me think again about my past.  Was I raised to be a racist?  What happened along the way that allowed me to be an active part of an overtly racist policy and practice of excluding Black jurors as a prosecutor?  What led me to say the N-word earlier in my life, participate in racially derogative conversations, and laugh at racist jokes?

As I wrote this blog, I happened to be reading “Adventures with a Texas Naturalist” by Roy Bedichek.  Published in 1947, it is a Texas classic.  In his chapter on the Golden Eagle, Bedichek says this: 

“Many of the delicate physical reactions of the mother by which she imparts to her young the fears, attractions, repulsions, indifferences, and curiosity, and the various gradations and minglings of these important emotions, long escaped the attention of animal psychologists…The whole being of the infant animal is attuned to the mother so sensitively that it still seems to be physically a part of her, and its nervous system, particularly, merely an extension of hers. 

“This teaching by imitation – or through some mystic psychic connection – is, of course, not confined to the animal world.  Much of the education of children referred to as absorbed with the mother’s milk is transmitted by the same method by which the kitten learns to spit its displeasure or the pup learns to wag its welcome.

“The wolf’s pup snarls at the odor of man long before he has experienced any injury or discomfort at the hands of man.  He snarls because his mother snarls, and the physical mechanism set up in him flowers as distrust, anger, hatred, belligerency, and so on, even though the kindliest treatment is accorded him by his human keeper.”

“Early associations are tenacious and influence adult belief in subterranean ways that escape detection.”

What was I taught?

I was raised until age 13 in a very small ranching and farming community in Northwest Texas.  This was the 1950s and early 1960s.  It was rare to see a Black person on the streets.  Our schools were not integrated.  The Black population was physically separated from the white community.   Each Fall there would be a very large influx of Mexicans brought from Mexico to chop and pick cotton.  There  was open prejudice against Blacks and Mexicans.  This is not to say that there was active oppression or persecution, but there was no doubt that whites believed Blacks and Mexicans were inferior and needed to be kept “in their place.”  The N-word was said openly and, in fact, it was considered somewhat respectful to refer to a Black person as “colored” or as a “Negro.”  At that time, the term “African-American” was never used in rural Texas.  

When I started high school in 1963, our family moved to College Station.  There were no Black students at A&M Consolidated.  At the beginning of my junior year, the Lincoln school burned and we were totally integrated immediately.  There was a clash of cultures, sometimes physical, right from the start as Blacks and whites adjusted to each other.  Unfortunately for the Black students, many of them seemed to be behind academically and my recollection is that the school administration made little effort to accommodate the Black students who were behind.  By this I don’t mean that the administration and teaching staff were intentionally harsh or unsympathetic toward the Black students.  I mean that I don’t recall Black students being provided with remedial classes and the administration made no changes in the core curriculum or the speed of instruction to accommodate the Black students who were behind.  It may not have been a sink or swim attitude toward the Black students, but it was definitely not a welcoming and accommodating environment either. The prevailing belief among white parents was that Black students would hold back the white students and that this should not be allowed to happen.  Over my next two years of high school, Black and white students gradually got to know each other and things got better.  All in all, I would say it was a qualified success.  Of course, this is my judgment as a white student.  My Black classmates may well have a completely different opinion.  It would be a lie to say racial prejudice did not exist – it did.

Context is always important.  This was the 1960s.  There was serious racial strife across the country which was often violent.  President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated in 1968.  Vietnam War protests became massive and then there was a counter-culture “hippie”  movement.  However, those issues didn’t much affect Brazos County.  Of course, everyone followed the national news every night and we were aware of what civil rights protestors and anti-War protestors were doing, but those protests were rare in Brazos County.  My recollection is that most whites in Brazos County, if they were totally honest, were of the opinion that Martin Luther King and the other leading civil rights figures of the day were violent agitators who were dangerous to the country.  Most white adults lumped together peaceful civil rights protestors and armed Black Panthers who whites believed intended a revolution.  People were afraid of a race war.  People were also afraid of the liberal “hippie” culture and of mixing the races.  This doesn’t mean that a majority of whites in Brazos County were strict segregationists.  Rather, most were for gradual integration and, in fact, Black elementary school students were already attending school with white children when the Lincoln school burned.  As for the Viet Nam War, my recollection is that a majority of people in Brazos County were for the War, which you might expect of a conservative community which is focused upon a university such as Texas A&M with its proud history of military service.  In my memory, all the civil rights, anti-war and social protests seemed to merge.  It was an extraordinarily turbulent time in America. No one my age will ever forget the 1960s.  Protests were sometimes violent, involved opportunistic looting and burning just like today, and were often violently suppressed by police and the National Guard.  Sound familiar?  When the commentators of today say there has never been a time like the present, they don’t know what they are talking about. 

Was I taught to hate or be a racist? I will have to give a nuanced answer.  My parents did not teach me to be a racist and they most definitely did not teach me to hate.  On the other hand, the overall impression I was given by the white adults and children among whom I was raised in two separate Texas towns, was that Blacks were intellectually inferior, prone to crime and violence, shiftless, lazy with a poor work ethic and not to be trusted.  This attitude was imparted mostly through overhearing adults talk, but what a child sees is also important, and I can say without fear of contradiction that I saw Blacks being treated very differently than whites in my everyday life and by respected authority figures in my life.  This does not mean that whites always treated Blacks harshly. Because there was so much subtle variation in people and in relationships, circumstances and situations, it will have to suffice to say that whites rarely treated Blacks as equals.  Blacks and whites led totally different lives in parallel universes. My white environment had taught me (imprinted upon me) that Blacks were “different,” and that unless and until a Black person had proven themselves to be wholly trustworthy, they were to be mistrusted and guarded against. 

I tried to play college football for a time at Stephen F. Austin in Nacogdoches.  I had a lot of Black teammates, but there were few Black students who were not athletes.  There was racial tension, but I don’t recall it being worse or really any different than what I experienced in high school.  When I transferred to Texas A&M, there were very few Black students.  There were probably more students from foreign counties than Black students.  Again, the prevailing attitude about race was what I had experienced and come to expect. 

By the late 60’s, Black athletes were being recruited to play in the Southwest Conference.  This started with Hayden Fry of SMU recruiting Jerry Levias to play football.  Levias was a terrific player.  His success at SMU and the success of Black players in many other conferences made it obvious that all schools would have to recruit Black players to remain competitive.  Nevertheless, there was strong racist resentment among white students and white former students about recruiting Blacks.  I will never forget a man seated near me in Kyle Field who stood up and yelled “Run Injun’ Run!” when Texas A&M’s first Black running back scored a touchdown on a long run. He just couldn’t admit TAMU had Black athletes.  This attitude has definitely changed over the years, but no one my age can deny that overt racism existed back then.

I entered Baylor Law School in late 1969 or early 1970.  I don’t recall a single Black law student.  Waco is a conservative town and Baylor is a deeply conservative university.  I don’t recollect any racial protests, but I also don’t recollect any real change in the hearts and minds of whites.  We were legally an integrated society, but we lived separate and distinct realities.  For the most part, whites in Texas at that time were beginning to grudgingly accept that things were changing, but it was as if those changes were being forced upon us by a distant federal government and it was deeply resented.  The attitude of the white public was that we were not going to take one step more than we were forced to take and, “by golly”, we’re going to let you know we don’t like it and will hate you forever for making us follow laws we don’t agree with.  The hatred of busing students to achieve integration is the most obvious example of this feeling.