Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes were the first black students admitted to the University of Georgia — they were seniors when I was a freshman. On my first day at UGA, I walked into French class; all the seats were full except those around a Hunter. I sat down next to her and suddenly the students standing took their seats.
Many well-meaning and normally fair Georgians, including UGA students, think that they are not racist when in reality they are. Many of my acquaintances, friends and relatives fall into this category.
This phenomenon is a direct result of non-black children knowing very little about the history of black people in America over the last several hundred years, which is why I am advocating an accurate course in black history, including slavery and reconstruction, be a part of every high school’s mandatory curriculum.
Currently, only seven states (AK, FL, IL, MS, NJ, NY, RI) mandate this course. Georgia only has an optional “ethnic studies” course for public schools.
Of course, racism does not begin in high school or college. Childhood upbringing is a large part of the problem. If you hear your parents talk about an African-American as “one of the good ones,” then you come to believe that all the rest can automatically assumed to be “bad ones.”
When this biased attitude is reinforced by your social groups (“they are all lazy”), the child ends up growing up with a negative, skewed point of view that is difficult to modify — especially if you enter college believing this to be true.
In the late 1970s, I worked and car pooled with a retired army colonel who lived in Fayette County. He is now dead, so I feel free to repeat this story.
He told me that there was no need for any affirmative action at all. The Civil Rights Act was passed — he was against it — and now everyone was on an equal footing so there was no need for affirmative action. Everyone should simply compete. I tried to explain to him the other side of the issue, but he refused to listen. And he made sure his family felt the same way. His son moved to Idaho to be in an all-white area.
I had forgotten about this incident until I recently had a disturbing conversation with another vet — a sincere, caring and bright person — who essentially said the same thing. Per him, we do not need affirmative action, African-Americans can just work harder.
Both were native Georgians, brought up in Georgia public schools. Both of these men have a simplistic view and ignore history, making it much easier for them to justify their own bigotry and deny being racist.
I find clear analogies are often the best way to achieve understanding. The analogy I like to use is that of a foot race. If one runner has their feet together for the first half of the race, one cannot expect them to be competitive.
That is the situation in regard to African-Americans in America. Even if we accept the totally incorrect assumption that African-Americans were suddenly treated equally after the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act (they absolutely were not), they still faced a straight uphill climb just to catch up.
In the early 1970s, I was an industrial management engineering consultant in a large rural North Carolina mill which had profitability issues. The manager of one area had indicated to me that one particular line worker was far better than the rest. He was black, as were all the line workers in that particular area.
I suggested he be considered for the current opening as a line supervisor. The manager told me he could not promote him because he needed someone who the other workers would respect. When I questioned him further, he said that black line workers would never accept a black supervisor.
In Muddy Waters, “I’m a Man,” black people understand what he is saying is “don’t call me boy.” Many whites, including those currently attending UGA, do not understand this fact.
There is no easy answer to the riddle of how to eliminate racism. But having the history of African-Americans taught in our high schools is a good start.