Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Political Relfection

The late 80'' and early 90's were, for me, exciting times at work. We were moving to computerized classrooms, and the Post Secondary Enrollment Option Program was bringing to my classes many more bright, motivated students. In these first years, it seems to me, many were home schooled (principally, I think, to not have to study evolution).

Early on, I was in the library with a class which was being helped with research. Some could be done, or supplemented with computers, and some still needed to be done on the in the library. I happened to be by a computer that had a disk in it with a comprehensive list of all the names and addresses in the U.S. I started typing in names of childhood friends (with no idea where they were living) and getting, as I remember it, way too many options. Then I typed in Al's last name, and there were only 2, a Jr. and Sr. in Colorado.

I called Al Sr. the next day and left a message: “If you lived on School Street in Lombard, Illinois, call this phone number. This is Dave...”

He called on his Watts line later, and we talked for probably an hour. Among other things, he told me th at when he was going over his father's papers when he died, he discovered that the subdivision we lived in was covenanted. To buy a lot, one had to be a member of the caucasian race.

And then, sort of bang bang, Time Magazine had a two page article about how, when lynching was practiced in the south, it was memorialized by post cards of the often times mutilated body hanging from a tree. The article showed samples of them. A local entrepreneur, like a druggist, would take the pictures, have them developed into postcard sized pictures, and sell them. There were old post cards showing that the sender had circled his position by the body, proud to have been part of the action.

At about the same time, PBS had a program on Levittown, the Long Island housing development that started just after WW II, offering housing for veterans for no money down, and modest monthly payments—unless the prospective veteran was black. Then one could not buy (or rent) at all.

I began to use this information to challenge some of my more conservative students about what America was and is. And I thought of it in terms of my own family.

My father came to the U. S in 1922 or '23 when he was 18. He died in 1958. He was here only about 35 years, and even though he was widowed with 6 children in 1942, 5 of them graduated from college (3 with Master's Degrees). It happened, at least partly, because of where we lived. We went to the excellent York High School. Put what my father was able to do, and how that benefited me in some context,

I am positive that in the Chicago area, there was a black man as bright as my father, and as successful, but that man would not have been able to live where his children would get the benefit from such a good school system. There are other possibilities. It is likely that in 1922, young black men were migrating north, maybe a young man whose father had been lynched, the extremist form of racism.* Confused, angry and ill educated, restricted to ghetto areas, what chance did that man or his kids have? How many generations of his family would be affected by this loss of opportunity?

Or maybe, he was a World War 2 vet with an honorable discharge, and could not get his family out of New York's ghetto to Long Island because loans were not even offered to him. And again, his children, and maybe even his children's children would be affected. Between about 1924 and 1930, my father sort of wandered around the upper midwest. Swedes were frequently foremen of construction crews, and he could come onto one, talk a little Swedish and get a job for a few days. He told a story of claiming to be a bricklayer, and then being found out on the second day of his tenure on the job when he got to something really complicated. But the foreman was from Smoland too, and he got another couple of day's work as a hod carrier, something he did know how to do. Such a chance for a black man at the time would have been rare to impossible.

It is fashionable among some circles to use Lincoln's words against him, to make him out as a racist, and some are not nice by today's standards. But even in his 20's when he was running for his first political office in Illinois, he thought and said that slavery was wrong because all men should be allowed to earn their own bread by the sweat of their own brows. He could never offer any great solution to the problem, but he did understand that slavery was fundamentally opposed to the standards of the republic. This position seems to me to be even more remarkable considering that Lincoln was queasy about the mixing of the races.

Even if blacks were lesser men, they were men and The Declaration of Independence should protect them, too. What I offer is not a solution, either, but at least something to think about.

None of what happened to my mythical black men was constitutional, either literally or more comprehensively in the words of the Declaration of Independence. But that it happened makes me suspicious of the notion that devolving power to the local, or smaller political movement would somehow bring more liberty. How long was the South able to prevent blacks from voting? As long as they were a permanent minority, bad things would happen to them. It was, ultimately, the federal government which changed the South. Of course we should be suspicious of the federal government. But we should be suspicious of our state legislators, town councils, and school boards, too.


*There were about 5000 lynchings between about 1870 until 1950. This is likely a conservative number because of the difficulty in counting. It is interesting, that even in fairly modern times, apologists of lynching used the claim of governmental inefficiency to condone it. If the government—generally meaning the federal government—got on the blacks for their rapes of white women, good citizens would not have to do it.

If you Google lynching numbers, you will have a lot to read and think about.

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