I am writing this column from Memphis as the fiftieth anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s assassination has come and gone. My visit to The Lorraine Motel and Mason Temple on April 4 was such a moving experience. It led me to re-think prejudice, racism, and all that separates us from one another. Creating a curated column with this in mind is a challenge. There is so much information online. Sorting through it is mind-boggling and formidable. I have gained much in this research. You might say I have a new pair of glasses.
Despite progress made in narrowing the gap between the privileged and marginalized, it remains wide. Discrimination based on race, sex, age, religion, national origin and sexual orientation exists as surely today as ever. We see it or hear about it daily. In Memphis, the CEO of United Way reported on February 27, 2018 that “the median income of African Americans is still 50 percent that of whites, despite our increased high school graduation and college degree rates and when it is consistent across other socioeconomic indices, we’re still stuck.”
We are still stuck indeed. Each of us is biased and possesses some degree of prejudice. My own roots of prejudice and discovery of redemption might be of some help to others. While I don’t think it would be useful to re-disclose the mounds of data, there is some good current information in this column’s hyperlinks. The most important thing to gain from this is that anyone can change. I have found that such conversion is unlikely unless there is a spiritual awakening from self-examination and soul searching. As the AA people put it in the second step of their program of recovery; “We came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”
Jean Vanier, a philosopher, writer, religious and moral leader and the founder of two major international community-based organizations, L’Arche, and Faith & Light, that exist for people with intellectual disabilities, teaches that fear is the basis of prejudice. He asserts that “We are all frightened of those who are different, those who challenge our authority, our certitudes, and our value system. We are all so frightened of losing what is important for us, the things that give us life, security, and status in society. We are frightened of change, and, I suspect, we are even more frightened of our own hearts.”
Self-Examination and Childhood Experience Reveal Roots of Bias
Examining ones heart is not easy work. I never wanted to think there was a prejudiced bone in my body. I was raised in Danville, Illinois, not in the Deep South where racism seemed so glaringly blatant. I just couldn’t have experienced such intolerance growing up in my comfortable Midwestern town. But, upon deeper reflection and introspection, it seems that early childhood experiences hidden within implicit messages from adults shaped my opinions and attitudes more than I had imagined. I also discovered that Danville has a past that brought it some well-deserved shame. There was a horribly brutal mob lynching in 1903 which made headlines around the country. No place is immune from the fears which fuel hatred and violence.
My earliest memories of African-American people surround several women and men who served as caterers for my parents’ elegant dinner parties. When I asked my mother why they were all black, she responded that the family had ‘colored’ servants for generations. Her ancestors had freed their slaves in Kentucky when they decided to migrate to Illinois in 1829. One of them, a pregnant girl named Polly, followed on foot behind their covered wagons into the Free State. She was not allowed to cross the border in the wagon due to federal law. Aunt Pol, as she came to be known, and her family acted as our servants and nannies for years to come.
In fact, her grandson, Frank Neal and his wife, Florence were among the caterers I knew and loved. So my first impression was that African Americans were our family members. It also bothered me, even as a little boy, that we had once been owners of slaves. I decided to pay attention to family members and other trusted adults as they talked about and interacted with black people. My observations were puzzling. It was forbidden to use the “N-word” in our home but when my mother gave Florence Neal a ride home from a party she told me she was taking her to nigger town.
When we saw black children with their parents she referred to them as ‘pickaninnys’. Mom wasn’t the only one who gave me mixed messages. But hers were the words that stuck with me. In my mind, there was clearly a disparity between what the adults said they believed and how they behaved.
Media helped to shape my attitudes and those of most kids. There was no internet, but there were other means that guided our thinking just as much Face Book does today. Children’s books like “Little Black Sambo” which portrayed the character as a stereotyped ‘pickaninny’, was quite hurtful to black children “The Bobbsey Twins In the Land of Cotton” portrayed cotton picking laborers in this way;
Negroes, both men and women, were gaily dressed in bright-colored shirts, or sunbonnets and aprons. Most of them were singing. “They must like their work,” said Nan. “They seem so happy.” “Cotton picking is healthful exercise.” Replied the plantation owner.
Several recording artists like Al Jolson who wore blackface and sang as minstrels depicted a negative stereotype of African Americans. Ralph David Abernathy talked about those stereotypes as black people “scratching where they didn’t itch, and laughing when they were not tickled.” Amos ‘n’ Andy was hugely popular radio show whose characters were voiced by two white men portraying black men. Later, a television show of the same name appeared with ‘colored’ actors. Bishop W. J. Walls of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church wrote an article sharply denouncing Amos ‘n’ Andy, singling out the lower-class characterizations and the “crude, repetitious and moronic” dialogue. These were only a few of my boyhood influences.
I discovered early on that people loved the way I mimicked and imitated voices. It wasn’t long before my jokes turned on black people, polish people and others who were easy and, I found, socially acceptable targets. My popularity among friends and family grew dramatically as I acted out my characterizations. It all seemed harmless enough. Little did I suspect that my antics were affecting people in lasting ways. I was a privileged white boy who was leveraging my position at the expense of those who were suffering injustice and discrimination. I could feel this in my stomach, but the approval and laughter I created only increased the frequency of my bad behavior.
The origins of prejudice can almost always be traced to childhood experiences and to beliefs taught by parents and other adults. Between the ages of 3 and 6, kids begin to understand prejudice and to apply stereotypes. We are not prejudiced because we are evil but because we are human and it is easy to fall into it. The infrastructure of prejudice is not moral depravity, but our regular thinking mechanism that just went wrong.
How Pivotal Events Shake the Foundations of Prejudice
It has taken a series of ah-ha moments, tragic events, studies, workshops and close work with marginalized people to create my conversion and transformation process which continues to this day. The first such experience happened in 1958 when I was seven years old. My parents spent winters with my grandparents in South Florida near Pompano Beach. I loved going there and considered it my second home. On this trip there was a special treat. The State of Florida had just opened the Sunshine State Parkway. It was a divided tollway and you could cruise along at speeds and ‘make time’ unheard of on the two lane roads from Danville to Pompano. To top it all off, there were full service rest areas with free orange juice and a restaurant. We stopped at the first one we saw. The booths at the restaurant each had a little juke box and you could pick songs you liked for a nickel. We were all quite impressed.
I will never forget what happened next. I had to go to the bathroom and my folks decided I was old enough to go on my own. I confidently strode to the facilities only to be met by signs that baffled me. The restrooms were marked for use by race. They were labeled as White Men, Colored Men, White Women and Colored Women. Water fountains were also separate. What was I supposed to do? I pondered for a minute and chose the colored bathroom thinking that the people in there had to be interesting (purple, red, orange?). I went inside and started to approach a urinal when a black man took me by the hand and asked to take me back to my parents.
I protested that I had to go, but he persisted and led me to our booth. The man told my parents that; “The little master was gonna use the colored bathroom. We could all get in a lot of trouble.” Dad apologized and took me to the White Only boys’ room. I was indignant. It took lots of rather clumsy explanations for me to finally be told to accept that things were different in the South…and to shut up. I decided never to forget the look on the man’s face who saved us from ‘trouble’. There was something terribly wrong.
There were other influences over the years. My friend, Jack Lord from Pompano introduced me to books by Martin Luther King, President Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage, and one about Gandhi. They made big impressions on my thinking. Not a reading list my conservative Republican parents endorsed, but they allowed me to delve into them anyway. But the next event that shook up my conscience happened in 1967. I was 16 and a sophomore at Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale. One weekend I was invited to a friend’s house in Pahokee, Florida. Any excuse to get out of the dorm was welcome. Several of the dorm kids were from Pahokee and it sounded like a great time.
On Sunday I was expected to attend church services with my host family at First Baptist Church. One of my friends Dad was a deacon at the church and met us at the door to chat about football prior to the services. As we were talking, an African American couple from out of town began walking up the steps to the sanctuary. The Dad excused himself, went into the vestibule and returned with a shotgun. He pointed it at the couple and said; “You must be in the wrong place. The nigger church is down the street.” The frightened folks made a hasty retreat. I was so angry that I couldn’t find words for hours. I just sat there in the car all the way back to Ft. Lauderdale with hot tears in my eyes. I finally decided that I would never be silent about something like this again.
On April 4, 1968 I was in night study hall at Pine Crest when the teacher in charge, Mr. Ed Sickman, called for our attention and told us Senator Robert Kennedy announced in Indianapolis that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis. We were devastated. How could such a thing happen in our country? King’s words kept playing in my head; “I have felt the power of God transforming the fatigue of despair into the buoyancy of hope. I am convinced that the universe is under the control of a loving purpose and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship.” Was he wrong? Had we sunk to such a level as a people that all hope was gone? How could God let this happen? My heart was broken. That was undeniable. Then, a few short weeks later, Senator Kennedy was killed. My inner transformation was in full swing. I began to question everything about my beliefs. But, like any conversion, the process was not linear.
Conversions and Transformation Take Time to Affect Change
My penchant for racially insensitive and mean joke telling continued for years. Even though my heart was changed, my mind wasn’t. The guilt I experienced was not enough to stop my comments to others which might have influenced or reinforced their own prejudices. It is said that one has to really want to change for it to happen. I believe that this is true. Certainly, the pivotal events I described above were the impetus for my change.
But there is more to it than that. I spent much of my life helping kids who suffered the most terrible trauma, and adults who struggled with addictions as a result of horrific childhood experiences. They are of every race, religion, sexual orientation, social background and on and on. They have been my teachers. More than all of my college African American Studies, workshops, retreats and community leadership gatherings about prejudice, my patients led me to the spiritual truth that we are all unique but conversely all the same. It took years for me to reach a place where my bias does not actively direct my behavior. But I still have to be on guard. Old demons can still raise their pointy heads.
The process of conversion and transformation is well told in the lives of Saul of Tarsus (a relentless persecutor of early Christians), John Newton (the slave trader who wrote Amazing Grace) and George Wallace (the Governor of Alabama who infamously preached; ”Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”). All three of these men were feared and reviled, but celebrated by many as well. Then something happened which turned each of them around and transformed not only their own lives, but the lives of countless others.
Saul became the Apostle Paul and spent his life dedicated to those he once would have slaughtered.
John Newton wrote the beloved hymn “Amazing Grace” and wrote extensively on the evils of slavery. His conversion took 38 years by the way. It is seldom immediate. George Wallace was shot in 1972 by a would-be-assassin. He recalled as he lay on his back, blood pooling on the ground, a light came into his heart and as his son later remarked “this was his first step on the road to Damascus.” Wallace poured himself into Bible study and found a new faith system that did not allow discrimination and hatred. He asked his former enemies for forgiveness. Congressman John Lewis, for one, offered it to him saying; “George Wallace should be remembered for his capacity to change.”
Storytelling and Use of Resources to Stem the Tide of Prejudice; It’s Always a God Thing
Telling your own story and listening to the fears of those to whom we minister are critical elements in the work we do to help people find their way. There are important questions to ask ourselves when developing such stories. This involves self-examination and seeking to find the roots of prejudices. Among them are these;
- Do you remember the attitudes your parents had about other races, religions, ethnic groups when you were a child?
- How did your prejudice develop?
- Can you recall a time when you held prejudiced attitudes or beliefs or acted in a discriminatory manner because your group of friends expected you to?
- Can you think of a prejudiced attitude you have held toward a group of people?
- Have you ever been the target of discrimination? If so, how did this negative treatment make you feel?
- Do I hold any stereotypes that may lead to excluding, avoiding, and biased treatment of others?
- Have you witnessed racism toward any racial or ethnic groups?
- Are you aware of racism in your community?
In addition to the stories we develop, there are also some excellent tools available to us that would help create dialogue and build bridges between groups. Among them is the Sojourners Study Guide and Book by Jim Wallace called “America’s Original Sin”. I have used them in my work over the years and find them to be extremely helpful to participants in exploring belief systems and building community. A copy of the study guides are provided here in pdf form for your use. There is a virtual learning series called “Racial Equity & Liberation” which is also quite valuable and easy to access. Another good current resource guide was developed by Yusef Mgeni in 2017.
The time for action is now. Clare Hanrahan, the social activist, leaves us with this formidable warning;
“Like the deadly currents in the Mississippi River, racism still lurks about even when much of the surface seems calm. Today, its poisons are rising again like a deadly fog off the surface of deep and troubled waters.”
Here is the truth.
Fear of others is the fundamental emotion that guides prejudice and discrimination. It always searches for a scapegoat. When we develop a desire to change through the intervention of a “Power Greater the Ourselves” a realization begins to take hold. As one of my patients used to repeat over and over to me; “I’m not in charge. It’s a God thing.” We will realize that all of us are fundamentally the same, no matter what our age, gender, race, culture, religion, limits or disabilities may be. We all have vulnerable hearts and need to be loved and appreciated. We belong to a common humanity. As we begin to listen and really hear each other’s stories things begin change and everyone involved is transformed.
Robert Kenneth Jones
Robert Kenneth Jones is an innovator in the treatment of addiction and childhood abuse.
In a career spanning over four decades, his work helping people recover from childhood abuse and addiction has earned him the respect of his peers.
His blog, An Elephant for Breakfast, testifies to the power of the human spirit to overcome the worst of life’s difficulties. We encourage you to visit and share this rich source of healing, inspiration and meditation.
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