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Please begin with an informative title:

Racism remains stoutly built-in to American culture; corporations and businesses and families, most of them, always have been prominently afflicted with the infection. Donald Sterling and his lifetime pattern of institutional racism represents nothing new in American life. His story is part of a larger stain on the American character, that can still be found easily, almost anywhere.

I suppose that some American, White, Senior Citizen, Male Retirees might have little direct experience of racism in this country. But I have seen a lot of it, close up, all of my life, both large scale and small. Follow me out into the tall grass for some of that story.


You must enter an Intro for your Diary Entry between 300 and 1150 characters long (that's approximately 50-175 words without any html or formatting markup).

Mom was a flapper.

She was in grade school when American intervention helped end the Great War in Europe and the Doughboys started coming home. Growing up as a suburban teenager between the wars, Mom was raring to go when the Roaring Twenties started sounding out.

Mom's sheltered, suburban life rarely brought her into contact with people of color, except perhaps domestic servants and railroad porters. Then, during high school, she ran away from an abusive step-mother and drifted into a job as a hat check girl in a Chinese nightclub run by Tong gangsters. She hung out with Black jazz musicians and other entertainers. (OT: I'm pretty sure she smoked some pot with them. Anyway, I never heard her disparage the weed.) Paradoxically, Mom came away from that experience with a lifetime friendship with a Chinese restauranteur whom she came to know, but also with a repertoire of insensitive, ignorant and disparaging generalities and unfair stereotypes critical of Chinese people and culture that she would sometimes blurt out.

Mom had grown up the middle of three sisters, and both of her sisters considered Mom a black sheep for taking off on her own and hanging out with disreputable people. Both sisters were plenty racist in their own genteel way (we mustn't say nigger, say colored, instead), and, like my mother, largely indifferent to the racism of others. But unlike her expressions about the Chinese, and unlike her sisters, Mom never had a disparaging word to say about African Americans or other people of color. My world growing up was full of that kind of racism but Mom neither talked that talk nor walked that walk.  

Just months after Mom ran away from home, the Great Depression kicked off with a spectacular economic collapse when a record high financial bubble burst on Wall Street. While the Roaring Twenties may have been a bit liberating for a girl on her own, that came at a price. Mom struggled through jobs as a waitress, a telephone operator and others. But it was tough to get along in a man's world during the Depression. Mom's two-prong strategy for that problem was serial marriage and beauty school. So, she married early and often and walked out whenever things turned against her liking. She did it with confidence, knowing she could support herself working in a beauty shop. Unsurprisingly, her sisters largely disapproved of Mom's matrimonial wandering. Mom's last (also 2nd) husband was this guy, my step-father, seen here way back when:

He was a union assembly line foreman in a light fixture factory owned by his Jewish brother-in-law. He hated Jews. He hated Martin Luther King. He said The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley and the Beatles played "nigger music". He had no problem with Jim Crow. He openly opined that if those Civil Rights marchers in the streets of those towns down South didn't want to get wet or bitten, (or shot or blown-up or lynched) they just ought to stay away from where the fire hoses were pointed and not go near the dogs, etc. As a voter, he was what they later called a Reagan Democrat, but the Southern Strategy had him at Nixon. He was my step-father, but never really a father to me and we became estranged for the last two decades of his life, unable to speak, without arguing, about anything but baseball. And that was before Fox News.

My step-father grew up the only son of a disabled railroad worker on a small pension. His mother was a cook and household servant in the mansion of one the richest families in a large city. His first jobs were caddying at country clubs, repairing their limos and roadsters and chauffeuring for the elite. His world encouraged him to see African-Americans as economic competitors who needed to be constrained by a strong caste system. Thus, a wealthy household would employ a Black porter to clean and wash the car, but only allow a White man to repair and drive it. In the factory where he worked when I was growing up, African-Americans worked only in packing and shipping jobs, considered unskilled and paid less. All of the men on the assembly line were White, considered skilled, and paid more. He liked it that way.  

My biological father had been Mom's third husband, but the White Trash Southern Fry Cook Drunkard ran off when I was two and became known to me only through stories about him and getting to know his family, whom Mom kept me in touch with even after she divorced him and remarried. Here he is, pictured, appropriately, I suppose, leaning against the front of what appears to be a liquor store:

My father came by his racism even more naturally, growing up as one of ten children on a small, rural North Carolina tobacco farm. His line traces back to a Spanish immigrant in 1837 and there is census data suggesting that the family may have held at least one African-American slave before Reconstruction. No doubt individuals could come from exactly this kind of background and famiiy without bearing the stain of racism, but I don't think that my father did. I'm pretty sure he bore the stain big time.  

I got to know many in his family, some very well. The very best known to me was my father's youngest brother, pictured here with my aunt, whom he met and married during World War II.

Uncle B and Aunt V were well traveled, educated, charming, lived in a certain elegance and, both of them, carried that particularly virulent and disgusting strain of racism still seen in some genteel people anywhere, but more characteristically in the South. I am talking about people who are welcoming, generous, polite, impeccably well mannered and utterly charming, so long as they are operating within their accustomed all-White milieu. However, add race to the situation with some of these people and it's all Release the Kraken. For example, Uncle B was certain that Martin Luther King was under the direct control of the Kremlin intent on stirring up nigger unrest to foment Bolshevik revolution in America. In the 1960's I saw him roll down the window of his Cadillac while driving through neighborhoods of people of color to yell epithets and insults at people simply guilty of happening to be there at that moment. Anything he saw on TV or on the street could prompt the most irritating and ridiculous racist remarks and observations. Aunt V was even worse, not the least for having lived far longer. She was definitely tender on gender issues. I saw her roll down the window of her Cadillac while driving when she saw a man with shoulder length hair and yell to ask him if he squatted to pee. This same charming lady, when Mrs. Left and I came to visit with our adopted infant first child, an African-American baby girl, could only think to ask "Who will she date?". By then was the 80's and Aunt V had long since become Uncle B's widow, but in her head it was still the 50's.

The good news is that all of those people are dead. They were all horribly racist, or at least tolerant of it. Except maybe Mom, any of them would fit right into the modern GOP on race and find nothing exceptional in the views of Donald Sterling. But that is not me, or my brother or my wife or his. It is not his son or my daughters.

It was the stain of racism in our people and our families that went on to stain America's economic and cultural institutions. The demographic cadres most heavily marked with that particular stain are dying out in America. Over time, a process will hopefully occur reducing institutional racism as tolerance of diversity and indifference to race increasingly becomes the rule for ourselves.

Since the beginning. racism and the myriad problems it has spawned have dominated most of American politics. I dream of the day when we move beyond race and our political factions reorient around economic justice. Then, democracy might stand a chance.

Extended (Optional)

Originally posted to LeftOfYou on Tue May 06, 2014 at 04:14 PM PDT.

Also republished by Genealogy and Family History Community and Community Spotlight.

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