In Delaware’s ‘uncomfortable’ conversation about race,” reporter Jessica Masulli Reyes provides insights into challenges faced by citizens concerned with diminishing the racial divide that exists in New Castle County, Delaware, insights that can be extrapolated to many communities across America.
Her observations are well-intentioned, but they are not novel. Growing up in the Fifties and Sixties near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, I was raised by a white mother who insisted I join her at the March on Washington in 1963 (a seminal moment in my life). Back then, even as a young teen, I knew race wasn’t just an issue in the South even though the American media made it appear that racism (segregation was how racism was signified then) was a vestige of the defeated Confederacy that had failed to die.
As far as housing was concerned, the Harrisburg area was as segregated as the most segregated areas in the South: there were no black families or individuals living among the 40,000+ citizens that populated the communities on the West Shore of the Susquehanna River; blacks lived on the East Shore in two stereotypical urban ghettos and in a small neighborhood next to the city limits. Such segregation, a function of real estate practices, resulted in several suburban school districts that contained no children of color.
Unlike the South, racial biases of the white residents of Harrisburg where hushed; in polite society, such things were not discussed. The community in the North in which I was raised reflected comedian and activist Dick Gregory’s characterization: “In the South, they don’t mind how close I get, so long as I don’t get too big. In the North, they don’t mind how big I get, so long as I don’t get too close.”
The high percentage of regular church attendance prior to the Seventies allowed suburban and urban churches to have more influence in the white community than—it can be argued—they have today. In the early Sixties in Harrisburg, segregation became a focus of conversations with an ecumenical bent among black and white city congregations (most of the white congregations pulled up stakes and moved to the suburbs by 1975), and thanks to the insistence of my mother, I attended many of those conversations as a teen.
What I recall as distinctly different about those conversations compared to conversations related to race that I have experienced since that time is this: in the early Sixties there was never mention of the word or concept of diversity. As a white teenager, I knew there were racial differences between myself and Black kids of the same age, but like the adults who engaged in the ecumenical conversations, the differences seemed to be accepted as cultural window dressing. Apparently, diversity was deemed insignificant in the greater discussion of improving race relations.
What the conversations focused upon was identifying the important things that we all shared regardless of our race: the importance of family, the wish to provide a better life for children, the need to feel valued individually, the need to feel protected and safe, the wish to be treated fairly. There was a professed intent to draw people together based upon our common human wants and needs; a focus on diversity would have thwarted that goal.
Many of us came away from those conversations with a clearer understanding that there are things more important than cultural window dressings, which do have their place within our families and cultural communities. We learned that what we hold in common, regardless of our race, includes those things that each of us wants to experience, things that fall within the parameters of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Imagine how improved race relations might be today if, as a society, we had spent the last fifty years discussing the things we hold in common as human beings instead of being consumed by a destructive focus on what is different among us. Diversity Training may be one of the most negatively influential things that has influenced race relations since the focus on diversity gained importance in the Seventies in education, business, and government.
Diversity training arose out of a misguided response to the assassinations of MLK and RFK, the urban riots, the paralyzing fear many white folks had about the Black Panthers, and the totally illogical view that by focusing on what makes “others” different we will become more accepting. By 1970, in my little world at least, there was little that remained of the good intentions and the progress made in race relations in the early Sixties.
 During my years as a student in the West Shore School District (1954 through 1965), it was such a district..