The persistence of prejudice
During the spring of 1963, when I was in the fifth grade, my school put on a musical comedy that involved the entire class. The show was particularly memorable for me, not only because much of the community was involved in the ambitious production but also because, when it was announced that I had landed the coveted male lead — a professor complete with glued-on mustache and goatee — the other boys in the class hoisted me on their shoulders and carried me around the room. Heady stuff for an 11-year-old.
The play was written in the 1930s and included an African American male character of the most stereotypical Stepin Fetchit nature. Because there was not a single African American child in the entire school, the part was played in blackface by a cross-dressed young lady, who immersed herself in the demanding dialect and comic timing required. And no one gave it a second thought.
Like many neighborhoods in and around Baltimore at the time, my community was entirely white. The only black faces that ever appeared on our streets were the occasional “arabers” with their horse-drawn carts, laden with produce and, sometimes, bushel baskets of live crabs. In fact, Baltimore has a long history of discriminatory housing practices that divided the city by race, ethnicity and economic class. Such overt segregation often breeds clueless insensitivity and sometimes spawns outright prejudice.
During the summer following our theatrical production, there were demonstrations for the integration of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, a place that white Baltimore children had been visiting for decades; most of them blissfully oblivious to the whites-only policy. For many, the news of the demonstrations served as a wake-up call to the inherent wrongfulness of racially exclusionary practices. But for others it was a call of an entirely different nature, as counter-demonstrators turned out in support of the status quo. While the park soon changed its policy and integrated, the vigorousness of the counterprotests was evidence of the persistence of a strong sentiment for maintaining an entrenched system of segregation.
Indeed, in the following year’s presidential primary, an avowed segregationist, Alabama Gov. George Wallace, won 15 of Maryland’s counties and 43% of the vote statewide. In the gubernatorial election two years later, a candidate running primarily against open housing laws won nearly 42% of the vote in a three-way race.
When the Civil Rights Act finally was passed, I naively thought that the segregationists and others opposing rudimentary equality would either have to get on board or be ostracized into a minority third party like the Dixiecrats in 1948. Of course, I was quite wrong. In fact, while it seems that such ugly divisiveness should be regarded as long ago stuff from another place and time, it is more than evident that it continues to have many devoted caretakers who eagerly employ it in the pursuit of political power. And so our national discourse is a constantly bellowing about all that divides us, while bigotry perpetuates apartheid and ratifies narrow-mindedness.
The consequence of all this is more than the incivility and fractiousness that frames our conversations and colors our perceptions. It also has a prime role in serving to institutionalize the marginalization of and disinvestment in people and neighborhoods that beget hopelessness and stunt aspiration. My 1963 fifth grade class was wholly unmindful that our innocent operetta contained a blatant play to prejudice, and the larger harm that such thoughtlessness could induce. Today’s adults should surely know better.