I grew up in San Diego, California, although I was born in North Carolina and my folks were from Arizona. Right after the war we lived in what is now a very posh area of San Diego—Point Loma—but when my Dad got into San Diego State College on the G. I. Bill, we moved to married student’s housing down by the jetty in Old Town. Most of the living arrangements in that area of town were temporary plywood multi-units built for the influx of workers for the war industries: building airplanes and ships. In Southern California where the weather is friendly, temporary buildings tend to last a long time. When I came home from New Jersey to surprise my buddy who was getting married, they held his bachelor party in a newly built townhouse on the side of a long hill where, until that visit, I would see only those old two-story plywood firetraps still being used to house the less fortunate of San Diego.
I started school when we lived in the temporary housing. Since the small enclave was for college students, it was mixed tended to be white. The larger encompassing area was a strong mixture of blacks, Mexicans, and anyone who needed cheap housing. When I went to the local school, I encountered students, some of which were so black I thought they were blue … at least their feet. Actually, I remember the fact that so many kids in the classroom were barefoot more vividly than I remember what their skin looked like.
Barefoot, it seems to me, suggests poverty and is not a characteristic of any race.
But my exposure to non-white people wasn’t restricted to the area where we lived. At that time everyone went downtown to do their shopping. Downtown I remember a strong mixture of black women relaxing in the lounge at Kress’s after shopping till their feet throbbed; I remember signs in most store windows announcing “Se Habla Español” which, with Mexico only 12 miles away, was a useful skill; and I remember wild packs of sailors in their summer whites or winter blues getting their extra uniform pressed at The Seven Seas, catching a Padre game at Lane Field, or just trying to stagger in and out of the many friendly bars and taverns in the Gaslight area. There were no real suburbs yet: no shopping malls, no fancy bowling alleys, no pizza parlors. Downtown there was a bowling alley with real pin spotters (I know, my cousin earned his walking around money setting pins at that bowling alley). That was also the first place in town where you could get this strange, but delicious, concoction the boys brought home from Italy … pizza. They might have had it back east but in San Diego it was a whole new food group.
Downtown was a mixture of sights and sounds that never let you forget you were just a young observer of a wild and varied life that you would grow into.
But when my Dad started teaching, he was at a new school in the eastern county town of El Cajon. Post-war housing was exploding all over the hills which once grew only cactus and tumbleweeds but now grew three bedroom houses with a driveway and a garage. The house my Dad bought for what nowadays might be considered a month’s salary if even that, is still there, having raised three generations before being passed on to strangers. But that neighborhood was decidedly white. I didn’t have a black school mate until late in High School. It was about that time that I realized even San Diego was strictly divided with the black families relegated to the south side of the town and surrounding areas. Going back there recently, I can see that neighborhoods are far more mixed than they were when I was a kid. Still, various neighborhoods are focal points for new people to congregate with similar neighbors: Linda Vista, one of the first planned neighborhoods in the country, is now chiefly Vietnamese; Hillcrest, which was always a little artsy, is now the gay part of town, and so much of the once rather slummy or heavily slanted to fleece the fleet embarcadero is now fancy restaurants and shopping areas for the tourists. True, the tuna fleet is gone but now you can take an romantic evening stroll down the rows of expensive sail boats and enjoy the drunken parties that attract so many people to the sea.
But my thoughts need to be brought back to my experiences with African-Americans, which I prefer to just call black people even though one of the darkest women I ever saw was from the south Pacific and was classified as white.
When I was in college there was a decent mixture of white kids and black kids with a strong contingent of Asian kids. I certainly did not consider myself special or superior, in fact, I felt it was important to not classify those differences as having any significance. After all, a big tall blond fellow took pity on me and tutored me in astronomy so I would pass the course; a short, flecked red-head always said hello when we sat down in that Shakespeare seminar; one friendly guy in my French class asked me if I was gay and seemed disappointed at my answer; several rooms on our floor in the dormitory were home to black kids and if I recall, only one was an athlete and his sport was tennis; mixed relationships were common and no one got upset except when a midwest school band was visiting and while living in our dorm were aghast … but they were shocked to see we allowed women in the dorm so I’m not too sure they were concerned about the black students.
But as I said, I was raised to notice differences between people: some were blond, some had long hair or black skin or freckles … they were just physical characteristics and gave variety to life. Race was no more significant than ear-size.
When I moved on to St. Louis I was exposed to many things I had never seen before. True, in order to live and go to graduate school I at first lived in a rooming house in a very dark neighborhood and often would be accosted when walking down the street. I guess it was the opposite of “white privilege” and I accepted it and tried not to let it bother me. What I realized I was in the midst of was not a black neighborhood but rather a poor neighborhood. Poverty was the problem, not skin color. My white skin (really white!) was a symbol of privilege: even though I dressed in G. I. fatigues and rolled my own to save money, I was still privileged.
One day I was walking down the street, going I forget where, when out of an open window I was hailed by a deep and menacing voice that asked me, “Where you going, Whitey?” I did a physical flop at that moment, deep in my guts, but whoever spoke from behind the curtains that day gave me a good understanding of what is feels like to not have any white privilege … to better understand how most black people in this country feel every day.
I came to Newark, New Jersey about the time of the riots and, although I started commuting from further north, I eventually moved down closer to work and was once again in a very mixed neighborhood. Still I tried to maintain my color-blindness and just treat people as people. Unfortunately, some form of Affirmative Action started up and at work we were being forced to differentiate between what is laughingly called “the races.” I understand the whys and wherefores of Affirmative Action but it was almost impossible for me to change and treat people other than as equals.
I don’t remember the sequence but it seems like we regularly flip-flopped at work between making sure our records were identified by race to ripping through our personal files to make sure the was no evidence of racial identification. At those times I understood the importance, in fact the necessity of some forms of Affirmative Action, but bureaucrats can’t fix racial inequality: if the people aren’t fully committed, then no program is going to work and we get the bureaucratic FUBAR that looks like everyone is running around doing something when nothing, in fact, is being changed.
I’m retired now in the south, very much in the midst of strong racial identities that have existed since this country was founded. But I see more and more changes to the mixture of whites and blacks in the south and it’s probable that half of anyone’s day will be spent with people who appear different from you but who clearly are just the same as you. Most people are friendly, a few are not, but it has nothing to do with race.
I see that there are new scientific studies being done which show that all the people of the world are fundamentally identical at the genetic level. Some of the visual characteristics that have erroneously given us this ridiculous concept of the different races, is just the human body responding to the environment: dark skin in hot, sunny areas, light skin in snowy northern areas. Homo sapiens is one species … we don’t all look alike … get over it.