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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Turn, Turn, Turn, There Is A Season....

That song popularized Ecclesiastes to an entire generation of anti-war youth in the United States.

I thought of it as I watched President Obama's inauguration.

However you voted, whatever you believed on Election Day, you could not fail to be moved by the dignity and history of the Inauguration itself.

The Inner Cynic in many of us tends to hoot at dignity and call it pretension, and tends likewise to denigrate the sentiments of comity, self-sacrifice and struggle.

Sorry, I'm still a fan of the Three Musketeers: "One for All, and All for One." Perhpas I'm not cynical enough, but I want to believe in a progressive future.

I have reason to believe:

My great-grandmother fled discrimination and deadly hatred in Europe to come to America, a country where race-based lynchings were still in vogue, and non-WASPS relegated to menial jobs, poverty and no education. My great-grandfather struggled to support his family while working in a sweatshop. Slavery had ended only a generation earlier.

My grandmother did not have the right to vote, but considered herself well off because her children could attend public school and rise as high as education and hard work would let them. Restrictive covenants still kept Jews and Blacks and other minorities apart from "white" neighborhoods, but for those who could "pass," the passport to American society was good English, hard work and assimilation.

My mother had the right to vote, but could not make a purchase without the co-signature of a man--either her husband or her father.

I grew up knowing that college education was a given. My parents never talked about "if" I went to college--instead they talked about which college I should attend, the importance of grades, and career choices. I still recall the game little girls played on the school bus: "When I grow up, I'm going to marry a doctor." "Well, when I grow up, I'm going to marry a lawyer." I came home one day and repeated this to my father, who, bless his heart, said, "Why would you need to marry a lawyer if you can be one yourself?"

That opened a door to possibilities I had never considered until that day. (Thanks, Dad.)

Unlike my mother, I was permitted my own career and my own credit rating. I didn't need any man's signature to purchase anything.

Nonetheless, I am old enough to remember the pre-Civil Rights United States. My father's work took us to the East and South, out of California.

I remember going to a children's movie one day with my mother, and complaining because I wanted to sit in the balcony up high. "You're not allowed to sit there," my mohter explained, shushing me. I thought it was unfair--all those other kids got to sit up there. It wasn't until I was older that I recognized that prohibition for what it was -- racial discrimination. It wasn't that I wasn't allowed in the balcony--it was the African American families who weren't allowed to sit in the main body of the theatre with the rest of us.

People didn't say "African-American" or "Black" -- they said "Negro" or if they were really old, "Darky."

I remember a childhood where the neighborhoods were all lily-white and the community pool was closed to black children.

I remember getting on the bus to 7th grade and being thrilled to find an empty seat near the front, which I shared with the girl sitting alone there. Most of the year passed before I recognized that the seat next to her was always empty because none of the other students (all white) would sit next to a Black student. (Okay, I'm slow, but credit my parents' upbringing.)

I remember being told I couldn't go to THAT bathroom but had to wait in line at the OTHER bathroom--because bathrooms were segregated by race.

In 4th grade, when family finances were tight, my parents did something unheard of in our family -- they hired a babysitter and took me to an adult movie. My mother and father thought it was well worthwhile to make sure I saw To Kill A Mockingbird.

I remember the Civil Rights Movement and my complete bafflement at why nicely dressed Black Americans couldn't sit at a lunch counter at Woolworth's.

I remember my grandparents forbidding me to play over at Karen's house. Karen's father was a doctor, she attended the same private college-prep school I attended, and she was (and still is) a concert pianist. I didn't understand until my mother explained that my grandparents (who were raising me for two years of high school while my parents were out of the country) were afraid that I would date Karen's brother or his friends.

Karen is African American.

I remember Martin Luther King being shot by a racist mad-man and wondering why all the good men were being killed.

I remember the reverse-racism of the Black Power Movement which wouldn't permit non-Black students to sit at "their" table at the Student Union. I remember the hostility of Black women to any non-Black woman dating a Black man.

I remember the fear when Detroit burned, when Watts burned. I remember the Rodney King riots and his plea that we should all just get along. Common sense pops up in the strangest places, sometimes.

I remember my disillusionment with society when I took a history course covering African American history:

The Ku Klux Klan reached the peak of its membership in 1925. Between 1882 to 1959, 4,733 people had died at the hands of a lynch mob. The vast majority were Black. The rest were Chinese, Hispanic, Italian and Jews.

In 1939 Roosevelt created the Civil Rights Section of the Justice Department, which formally began to prosecute lynchings, although was unable to get a guilty verdict for almost a decade.

In 1946, a mob of white men shot and killed two young African-American couples near Moore's Ford Bridge in Walton County, Georgia 60 miles east of Atlanta. It was the last mass lynching in the United States and shocked the nation, as one of the victims was a young WWII veteran.

The last lynching in the United States was in 1998. James Byrd was a 49-year-old black father of three, who had accepted an early-morning ride home with the three white men. They arbitrarily attacked him and dragged him to his death behind their truck, dumped their victim's mutilated remains and then went to a barbecue.

I have worked with white cops who started as idealists and became racists because the only Black people they ever encountered were pimps and drug dealers who shot their partners. I have also worked with black cops who explained what it was like to grow up in crime-ridden poverty and wonder if today there would be food in the house and grow up seeing your friends die young from street violence and drugs.

In my law school class, 50% of the students were women. One student was Black.

The finest woman trial lawyer in my 'class' at the District Attorney's Office was African American--and she was passed over for promotion in favor of a blonde but syncophatic (and stupid, lazy) white woman.

I remember my own cynicism at the "consent decree" games played by my government employer. A consent decree requires that in order to put an end to a pattern of discrimination (in this County's case, racial discrimination), the department agreed to "affirmative action" hiring--so if there are two jobs available, one MUST go to a minority, oftentimes a Black female with a Hispanic surname, thus fitting three catergories into one person's hiring.

My cynicism blossomed as I saw my office (and others) hire people: a white man, a white woman, a black woman, a Hispanic man, an Asian woman. The two white hires were immediately fast-tracked into career-promoting positions and given high-profile cases and responsible jobs. The minority hires were left at the door, handling the run-of-the-mill misdemeanor cases and minor preliminary hearings--nothing that would get them a quick promotion up the ranks.

I remember being surprised that my step-daughter's generation (at least in the San Francisco area) thought nothing of "interracial dating" -- especially since the children all attended the same schools. No more 'separate but equal' schooling after desegregation, and yes, there are schools that are still heavily white or heavily black depending on the city, but suburban and city kids date other suburban and city kids without much attention to race.

The generation just younger than mine got fed up with questionnaires that asked for "Race" and gave limited choices -- black, white, Asian, Hispanic. They went to court and demanded a choice for mixed-race children, since so many of them felt they should not have to choose between one parent and the other, and they also demanded recognition in their own right.

This is the generation that led Obama to the White House.

Apart from his politics, the Right-Left divide, foreign policy, domestic policy and all those considerations, remember this: in one woman's lifetime, America has reinvented herself, once again becoming a symbol of the progress human beings are capable of making; despite a history of entrenched racism, poverty and officially sanctioned discrimination, today the greatest nation on Earth is led by a man of black and white roots, a man of Christian beliefs and Moslem heritage.

"I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." --Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

I would like to believe that that day has finally dawned.

Good luck, Mr. President.

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