I grew up in a rural area of upstate New York that was overwhelmingly white, with almost no racial minorities around to speak of.
In school, and in books, magazines, and on TV, I was bombarded with messages and tales about the extent of horrors that whites had done to other races over the generations, especially to blacks.
For example, I was a tender lad of 13 or 14 when the wildly successful TV miniseries about slavery, Roots (based on the book of the same title by Alex Haley), dominated the airwaves and the national consciousness. Some of my schoolteachers during that year oriented much of their classroom time around discussion and study of the topic of Roots, and in my 7th-grade social studies class we spent weeks with specially developed materials designed to enlighten us about the anthropological dynamics of a certain tribe in Africa, the Egba Yoruba.
At that age, I was already a voracious reader, and became fascinated with the general subject of the black experience and race relations in our country. After watching Roots on TV, I got my hands on Alex Haley’s book, and read it cover to cover. I perused other books, such as The Me Nobody Knows: Children’s Voices from the Ghetto, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, and Black Like Me.
Starting in the first grade, I had been completely indoctrinated in the socio-political sainthood of Dr. Martin Luther King, and I was very inspired by his legacy. For a class assignment, I wrote and made my own illustrated book about Dr. King, out of construction paper, staples, and magic markers.
Similarly, I was imbued with a reverential respect for Abraham Lincoln, and the legend of his having so courageously freed the slaves. On an 8th-grade field trip to Washington, D.C. I gazed up in awe at Lincoln’s memorial statue on the National Mall. Many years later, by moonlight on the reflecting pool in 2005, I proposed to my wife on the steps of that monument to Lincoln. But as a younger person, nobody, none of my teachers or parents or media figures ever told me what Lincoln had actually said regarding his prognosis for race relations in America once slavery was ended–I found out about that only in recent years.
Having very little actual experience with members of other races as a kid, I was nonetheless left with stereotyped impressions from various media, which in later years I found to be pretty accurate. While visiting my grandparents on the New England coast, I began to gain real-world experience: On one occasion, a young black man stole a ten-speed bicycle from my grandmother’s driveway. During another visit, at age 15, I was shoved to the ground by a much larger black guy when he and his friends didn’t like the idea that my friends and I were partying on their turf.
It wasn’t until just a few years ago that I found out that Alex Haley plagiarized much of Roots from a white author, and was successfully sued for it. Not only that, but that key aspects of Haley’s supposedly genealogically-researched story, and its depiction of slavery, were completely falsified.
I entered Air Force basic training at age 17, and that was when my firsthand experience with blacks really got underway. In the ranks, I found many of my black fellow servicemen to be perfectly wonderful brothers in arms. Some others, not so much. But mainly, the military ethos, discipline, and overall environment made racial differences not too important, it seemed.