I grew up in Texas when segregation was the norm. In the 1950s, my town had discrete residential areas containing blacks or Hispanics (not what they were called then). Whites (“normal people”) were the majority and controlling population. Until 1964, when I was in junior high, segregation was legally and socially enforced.
I remember being in a department store one summer and desperately needing a drink. There were two water fountains and one had a long line of people; the other was empty. I ran up and got a drink from the available one, only to be chided about getting cooties from the “colored” water fountain. I had not noticed the two signs over them.
The so-called “colored” kids went to the “colored” schools and, due to redlining, the schools and neighborhoods remained segregated even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a child, I was curious about segregation and race, and the times were rife with events that highlighted the schism in our society.
Because of the forced separation, we only saw or interacted with “colored” people in specific roles and certainly not in school or the local neighborhood. I never had much direct contact with “coloreds”, but was given plenty of anecdotal accounts of varying factual bases. Our dad was not discriminatory, and was good friends with several “colored” people. He was respectful to everyone, including some of our undesirable relatives, and demanded the same from us. My mother was less kind and preferred her “coloreds” to be subservient. We got a “colored” maid somewhere in there, and my mother was nice to her but never friendly. In contrast, my dad and us kids got along quite well with Christine.
I went to college in Norman, Oklahoma and lived in the athletic dorm where about a quarter of the residents were black, a new experience for me. In many ways, we were all cast into a strange mish-mash of cultural, academic and physical attributes. Like most of us white guys, many of my black teammates had never had such close connections to non-blacks. (Communal team showers introduced a new degree of exposure to both groups.) We were assigned dorm rooms with people of the same color and usually someone from near where you came from (not that that kept your roommate from being a lunatic).
In addition to the Okies, there were a lot of Texans of various hues, and it quickly became clear that most of the separation among us wasn’t racial, but cultural. Religion, economic status, degree of education and intelligence, personality, and most importantly, skill and team loyalty. We bonded by position on the playing field also. Offensive linemen tended to keep together, as did offensive backs and ends, and the same for the defensive players. There were small cliques of “straights” (no dope), “dopers,” “straights” (Bible thumpers), “hippies”, and of course, we had a whole group of bat-shit crazy guys from California.
I was intrigued by some of the black kids, who were excellent players and good guys, but obviously had less money and education than many of us. While most of us white guys had cars, nice clothes and fraternity memberships that gave us access to parties and sorority girls; a lot of the black guys were more isolated. There was also separation by field of study. Some of us were there for professional degrees, while others were content to keep their grades up in business administration or phys ed.
Until the Vietnam War draft lottery in 1969, players with acceptable grades had student deferments from the draft, so staying on the team and in school became particularly important for some kids from areas where the draft was heaviest. Guys that relied on ROTC to pull their grades up ended up heading off to the military at graduation anyway. After the lottery was established, deferments were eliminated and some players were drafted. We knew of players from previous years being killed in Vietnam, and it brought home our own mortality.
The times were changing. In 1968 two Olympic medal winners raised black-gloved fists in “black power” salutes. Race riots were continuing across the country, supplemented by anti-war protests, and many of each became violent. Back at school, there were intra-team tensions about haircuts and facial hair. (Some black players wanted to grow mustaches, and even some of the offensive linemen wanted to grow their hair longer.) Demonstrations were held across campus, but players were discouraged from participating.
After college, my time with the Indian Health Service on the Navajo reservation in Arizona gave me a whole new perspective on racial issues. Then, graduate school in Georgia introduced me to (East) Indian and Asian school mates, and I had more exposure to Native Americans in my job in Alaska. My jobs since then have given me exposure to different places, including internationally, and a wide variety of people from all over and a range of ethnicities. I have also noted differences among people from different settings — small towns, big cities, American heartland and coasts.
I claim no freedom from bias, but try hard to take individuals for who they are, how they act and how that impacts me. I’ve known “good and bad” people of all different stripes and admit to some struggle in trying to avoid generalizations about the various groups. Certainly, city kids have different experiences than country kids, but they’re both likely to have many of the same desirable and undesirable attributes. Different races, family, religious and educational backgrounds, social or economic strata, cultural norms and a whole myriad of other factors determine who we are and how we behave.
I have found that the most effective teams consist of a variety of people with different perspectives and skills. Just like a football team isn’t made up of eleven quarterbacks, any team effort is stronger, more resilient and more creative through diversity.
I find it interesting to observe and try to understand our differences. It’s an ever-changing vista of people with their own unique combination of traits, quirks and peculiarities. Luckily, we are not all the same.