The Midwest village where I grew up was about 99.7% white, so my neighbors had no occasion to develop animosity towards any other groups. There were virtually no Blacks, Eskimos, Shiites, Sunnis, or any other obvious outsiders to feel superior to.
Also, it was height of the civil rights era. My leaders, from my minister to my President, stressed that we are all brothers and sisters, regardless of our color. I accepted that proposition without dispute. In 1965 I enrolled in liberal Oberlin College, where everyone seemed to be color-blind.
For example, as a freshman I didnt raise an eyebrow when Carol Carter and her interracial boyfriend sometimes dined at my table. I also remember Roy Partridge, an affable black guy who lived down the hall at my dorm. Nothing remarkable there, though there would have been in Mississippi.
After several months, it came time to make housing arrangements for our sophomore year. I heard that Roy was organizing a dormitory section, so I inquired whether he had any openings. With a smile, he told me no. Only later did I realize that it was going to be a section for black students.
What? A segregated section? I thought we were in a battle to eliminate segregated housing in the real world, and here was my classmate organizing a no-whites-allowed group on my very own campus! But the concept prepared me for the next step, when the college approved an entire segregated dormitory: Afro-American House, where black heritage was celebrated and soul food was on the menu. Our Physics Club held a couple of dinner meetings there, and I developed a taste for collard greens.
But despite progress over the years, we still arent a fully color-blind nation. I did witness one blatantly racist incident, which Id like to recall for you now. Whatever details are fuzzy in my memory have been sharpened for narrative purposes.
It was the summer of 1988, and I was traveling with KDKA-TV to televise Pirates baseball. Our visit to Cincinnati would conclude with afternoon games on Saturday and Sunday.
After the first of those games, I was on my own for Saturday-evening dinner. I didnt want to eat in the hotel dining room again, so I boldly ventured across the street to another hotels dining room. I was seated against the wall, with a view of the entrance and the hotel lobby beyond.
After a few minutes, a black family of six came in. They were well-behaved and well-dressed, with outfits accented with dashiki colors of orange and green and gold and black. The all-white wait staff seemed annoyed by the arrival of a large party, but they rearranged two four-tops (tables for four) into a bigger table. The family took their seats.
My order arrived, and I began eating. But nothing seemed to be happening at the table for six, outside of quiet conversation.
I was almost finished when the father said, Excuse me, Miss? Weve been sitting here for 20 minutes and we dont even have menus yet. Could we at least have some water?
She answered, Im sorry, but this isnt my section. Ill see if I can find your waitress.
Again, nothing happened. The father requested service again. No one came by.
Finally, the family accepted the reality that they were not welcome in this establishment. They stood up and quietly walked away from the table.
They had not yet reached the entrance before two members of the wait staff rushed in and separated their table for six back into two four-tops.
They had not yet gotten out of the hotel lobby before a middle-aged white couple was seated at one of the four-tops and handed menus.
The spurned family, now back on the street, was too dignified to object to this obvious discrimination. I felt I should. But I didnt.
To whom would I complain? The restaurants employees were only following orders and probably felt more embarrassed than I did. The restaurants boss probably wasnt even on the premises; it was the weekend. My weak protest took the form of promising myself I would never dine there again.
A letter to the editor might have been in order, but it wouldnt have had much effect in a notoriously racist city like Cincinnati. Whos this guy from Pennsylvania? He doesnt know how it is around here. The hotel has every right not to serve a big group who are clearly out to cause trouble, wearing their African colors and all. And if the hotel did start serving blacks, the word would get out and others would follow. All those uppity colored people would scare away the regular customers!
As I say, I know little about racism. But I suspect that even 25 years later, this sort of thing still happens. Im sorry.