Ferguson: Discussion at my house

Hundreds of years of disrespect and disillusionment have brought us to this

Our family gatherings are usually large and loud. We have 16 grandchildren, lots of young adults, some teenagers, and at least three rugrats. At a recent dinner event over the holidays, the normal pandemonium was replaced by passionate debate. For everyone over 15, the topic of this free-for-all was Ferguson, Missouri … and it seemed that everyone had a different opinion.

I grew up in Buffalo, New York, a steelworkers’ town at the time. I was 10 years old when World War II ended, and I remember a lot from that period, like air-raid drills, blackouts and bond drives.

There were no blacks in my community nor my church, St. Joseph Catholic Church, nor my scouting group. My parents never said much on the subject. By the time I was in eighth grade I had figured out that Buffalo was a collection of towns inside a city: There was a Polish section that I was told had more Polish people than Warsaw, Poland; there was a German part of town, a large Italian section and a big, primarily Irish neighborhood.

And there was a black section. The poorest part of town. In Buffalo in those days we went everywhere on the streetcar, and I think I had figured out that it would have been a tough place to grow up.

As a teenager in Buffalo in the fifties I remember well that the Irish mothers wouldn’t let their daughters go out with German boys and the same went for all the other nationalities vs. the other nationalities. That system was breaking down by the time I graduated from college. But a mixed-race date was rare indeed.

As I was growing up, I came to realize that the American system was not the same for blacks as it was for me. Since the days of slavery, they have been second-class citizens. I felt that underneath it all, they were very angry because of the dangerous neighborhoods they had to live in, the projects, their lack of good education and other challenges tied to them because they were black, an accident of birth. Poverty, distrust, lack of education and family failure can breed dependence on crime and lawlessness. I would have been at least as angry if I had their experiences. Like most whites, my way of handling it was to avoid them, to marginalize and minimize them.

People treated with disrespect develop feelings of contempt. Once you diminish someone, it is very difficult to recover a decent relationship. It usually only gets worse. It piles up until something happens to make it impossible to keep quiet. Like Ferguson.

World War I started because of a stray event, the assassination of Duke Ferdinand. But the real reason was that all of Europe was in hate. Perhaps the same is true in America, and Ferguson just ignited the explosion. Perhaps we need everyone’s effort to fix one thing that is still wrong with America.

Intellectually, it is easy to conclude that the white and black races are equal. But we must admit that we have been disrespecting blacks for a long time. Racial discrimination did not end when the Civil Rights Act was enacted. The CRA made discrimination the government’s problem. It needs to be the problem of every American.

We owe each and every American, black or white, a path out of poverty that trades effort for employment – which implies a good education, either in traditional school or trade school. This in turn leads to a real shot at the American Dream. It’s not a matter of hand-outs and “love your neighbor,” it is a matter of opportunity and respect.

Things are a lot better now than in the fifties. It appears there are lots of blacks in media, film, sports, business, politics and every corner of American life. But that isn’t enough. Hundreds of years of disrespect and disillusionment have brought us to Ferguson.

If the debate in my kitchen is any indicator, there will be a lot of young people trying to see to it that it doesn’t happen again.

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