“Those People”

“Good lord, how can those people stand to live like that!”

Those words were spoken in 1955, either by me (age 14) or my 15-year-old sister. And “those people” were Negroes who were sitting on their fire escapes or leaning out their open windows, seeking to avoid the blistering heat of a late August afternoon.  We saw them clearly through the windows of the train that was taking us from Grand Central Station in New York City to Noroton Heights, Connecticut, where we lived on a small farm.  We had been ‘working’ in our father’s office in Manhattan, and he might have been with us on the train.

Of course, those weren’t the exact words, but the sentence perfectly captures our thinking, our assumptions.  We weren’t equipped to wonder why “those people” lived where they did, or to ask whether they had other options.  If it were possible to excavate and analyze our thinking, you’d probably discover that we assumed that everyone could choose where to live.  After all, our parents had chosen to leave New Jersey and buy a small farm in Connecticut so we could grow up in the country and learn responsibility by caring for animals. And naturally we assumed that everyone had that option.  Ergo, those Negroes must be choosing to live in crowded, hot, dirty neighborhoods.  Had someone pressed us, we probably would have blamed them for their bad choices.  Maybe those Negroes were spending their money stupidly, on alcohol or flashy Cadillacs, instead of buying a nice home with a big yard, we might have concluded. 

If our father had heard our comment and if he had been aware of red-lining, income inequality, substandard schooling and health care, and other barriers that stood in the way of Americans who did not look like him (white and male), it would have been a teachable moment.  But our father, a truly decent man, was a product of his age. In fact, it’s conceivable that he could have said those words to us, and not the other way around.  

As I remember the events of 65+ years ago, whoever said those words was making a statement, not asking a genuine question. And that’s sad, because without questions and curiosity, children–and adults–are stuck, running in place.

I wish we had instead asked real questions: “Why do they live there? Do they have a choice? Why aren’t there any Negroes living in our town?”  But our environment did not equip, encourage, or expect us to challenge the fundamentals of the world around us. Because we only saw “those people” through a train window and nowhere else, we were not prepared to see Negroes as real human beings who wanted to succeed in life and who cried and laughed and felt pain and joy, just as we did.

Some six years earlier, on April 7, 1949, the Broadway musical “South Pacific” brought racism center stage:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade

You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught

With all due respect to Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, overcoming casual and systemic racism is more complicated.  My sister and I (and our siblings) weren’t “carefully taught” to hate or even to be prejudiced.  Our daily life experiences trained us to accept as ‘natural’ what we saw with our own eyes and–without conscious thought or explicit teaching–to draw unspoken conclusions about ‘fundamental’ racial differences between us and “those people.”

Perhaps we could rewrite the song, adding NOT at critical points: 

You’ve got to be taught NOT to hate and fear

You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear

You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught NOT to be afraid

Of people whose eyes are oddly made

And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade

You’ve got to be carefully taught

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late

Before you are six or seven or eight

NOT To hate all the people your relatives hate

You’ve got to be carefully taught

It’s not enough to not teach hatred, and it’s not enough to simply teach tolerance. A more promising solution is direct and routine contact with those who look different or worship differently or speak different languages.  And we should be teaching a true history of our country, a history that includes accurate accounts of the horrors of slavery, Jim Crow, ‘red lining,’ the struggle for women’s suffrage, and more. We can handle the truth!

All children need to be encouraged to ask “Why?”  By their parents, by other adults, and by their teachers.  Skepticism is a commendable practice, while cynicism has no place in education. There’s no such thing as a stupid question, and no student should be shamed for admitting “I don’t understand.”  

Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw, “All children see things and should ask “Why?” And then some of them will dream things that never were and ask “Why not?”

While we have moved forward from 1955, the events of the past few years are clear evidence that America has a long, long way to go if we are ever going to achieve the ‘More Perfect Union’ that we dream of.

9 thoughts on ““Those People”

  1. Who taught Ted Cruz?😳😢

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sent from my iPad

    My mother , a single parent with 4 little girls , taught us at a very young age,
    that skin color, or living differences, don’t define who we were.
    In 1955 i rode horses for other people.I traveled around the countryside in a horse van sitting in the cab between 2 huge Black grooms.They took me to breakfast at greasy spoon diners .I was happy. We drove to shows, they threw me up on the horse, I’d jump the course ,and then off we’d go. One of the fellows invited me to his farm in North Carolina. Mom wouldn’t let me go . I guess none of us would have been safe.
    But I didn’t understand that then.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Here’s a poem I wrote….

    My Dears,
    In my day, nice little girls,
    With lily white Christian morals,
    Were strictly sheltered from “Four Letter Words”.
    Rude and crude, scandalous, unspeakable,
    Masked by bleeps and asterisks,
    Thus we preserved our purity.


    Other “Four Letter Words” were encouraged and praised.
    “They” and “Them” were often said,
    As in, “ ‘They’ are dangerous and dumb”
    And “Never, ever trust one of ‘Them’”.

    To our sorrow, loss and shame, we all learned the exclusion game.
    And poverty, disease and death came to claim our lovely land.
    “They” and “Them” should have been
    “My Dears……


    The little girls are old and woke,
    Quite immune to crudeness

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Lovely letter John.

    I grew up in the same era in the Oakland hills with the only people of color being the Black maid who came to the family across the street with seven kids who had to have heard us in sing-song through the kitchen window saying “eenie , meenie, minie , moe, catch a N…..” by the toe”

    Hard to think that was a reality, but it was, sadly

    Years later I had that memory and hope I’ve worked to undo those days Hard to live our histories often

    That history is deep in our fabric and we will need to work many years to excise it from our presumptions



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  5. Interesting to compare childhood experiences. I grew up in Wichita, Kansas and was active as a teen in various civil rights marches, starting about age 12. (That was more than 60 years ago). I’m 73 now.

    My mother was the first Head Start director in Kansas, and one of the first 20 in the country.

    I remember going to some early meetings with her where Head Start was discussed. She insisted that the program would be racially integrated – youngsters from low income families who were Hispanic, African American and white. There had to be a police officer at the meetings because some people were very opposed to this. But, as the expression goes, “she persisted.” And she succeeded.

    Our (Jewish) temple in Wichita had a rabbi who was a strong civil rights advocate. He encouraged us to participate in civil rights marches and to meet with African American and Hispanic teens. We did. He also reminded us regularly of the biblical injunction, “Justice, justice shall you pursue”. Sadly, after a while, the Temple Board fired him.

    But the lessons from my mother and the Rabbi, as well as the experiences described above, remain with me. They’ve had a huge impact on my life and work.


    • Joe, Most if not all of our Jewish friends seem to have had similar experiences growing up, and I am envious. Our parents grew up in a white bubble; to their credit, raising and living with their six children also educated them, and our mother became a civil rights and environmental activist, our father a liberal Republican.


      • Great to hear about your family, John. Growing up I found a huge difference in Jewish young people growing up in a city, compared to suburbs. Some of the most racist and arrogant white people I met in my teens & twenties were young people (Jewish and otherwise) who grew up in suburbs.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. “It’s not enough to not teach hatred, and it’s not enough to simply teach tolerance. A more promising solution is direct and routine contact with those who look different or worship differently or speak different languages. ” Yes and as the Spanish say CONVIVIENCIA a word translated as “peaceful coexistence or living and interacting every day together and getting to know and have a basic respect and affection for.”

    One of the reasons, I suspect, you looked at “Negroes” (the 1950s and early 1960s term) as others is that you lacked conviviencia. I came from a cosmopolitan immigrant family but even for us our CONVIVIENCIA was limited via some groups in the NYC area.

    My parents knew many Jewish friends, many Cuban friends (interestingly multiethnic), many British friends but my father had only one close relationship with an African-American (he and his wife were the only African-Americans at my father’s retirement party in 1976). I remember they talked about meeting Jackie Robinson in the 1960s and having seen the Dodgers play in the 1940s and 1950s. I mentioned to my wife the other day the only racially diverse group I knew as a boy were the Cubans and Brazilians we knew in New Jersey and New York chiefly from sports (baseball and AYSO soccer). My father and I went to see (in color) the 1970 World Cup on closed circuit TV in Harrison, NJ (in Portuguese). Almost everyone there except for us was Brazilian or Latin American. I also mentioned that I did not have a single African American teacher k-12 or in the university (NYU). I had many Hispanic teachers by contrast (chiefly Cuban and Puerto Rican). The first time I had daily interaction and CONVIENCIA with African-Americans was 1975-1977 when I served in the United States Marine Corps. I knew African American officers and NCOs and we worked closely together, trained together and listened to sports on the Armed Forces Radio together. Today we have African-American friends and neighbors and coreligonists (we are Roman Catholic). As a Catholic I have never attended a segregrated Mass in my life if you excluse visits to rural Ireland in the 1970s.

    And the world has changed dramatically since 1959. We recently attended the wedding of our godson (an African American of Irish and French Canadian origin) to a Mexcian American women of French and Spanish origin. Very diverse population at the wedding. Soon my daughter will be attending a Hindu wedding for Indian-Americans. Soon we will be attending a local wedding of one of my daughter’s high school classmates. The bride is African-American (a graduate of Yale) and the groom is Australian.

    Our son is married to a Mexican immigrant; our daughter is married to a naturalized Mexican immigrant. All of our grandchildren are racially mixed (and growing up as native Spanish speakers). I have met dozens of African immigrants (millions have immigranted from Africa to the USA in recent decades). I asked a number of them if they had been reluctant to emigrate to the USA because of her systemic racism. Most had experiences in other countries (Japan, France, Britain) and said the USA was the least racist and classist country in the world. Most appreciated the almost complete religious and political tolerance.

    Most say they rarely experienced overt racial discrimination in daily life and in their jobs. Many have intermarried (or their childen have intermarried) with Whites, Hispanics and Asians.

    So from where I stand the Melting Pot (perhaps somewhat segregated 100 years ago) bubbles on.

    I think only through CONVIVIENCIA and intermarriage can we overcome or diminish racial animus and prejudice over time. I am generally optimistic.

    However. class prejudice and national prejudice will enduring in some form.

    People will always be prejudiced in favor of the rich, the young and the slender and scorn the less rich, the less young and the less slim. People will prefer their religion and their native language over the languages and religions of others.

    President Obama’s daughters are beautiful, well-connected and wealthy. Those factors, not their racial ancestry, give them many advantages. I doubt very much if their lives and careers (today and tomorrow) will be hampered by systemic racism. I could be wrong of course.

    I have lived a long time.

    Some people have treated me with fairness and justice and others have not.

    No one ever asked me for my resume or offered me a job.

    I think it is not easy to be a first generation American with a slight foreign accent without any money or family connections.

    My father was the first and only one in his family to graduate from high school and go to college (Brooklyn College). During WW2 he rose in the ranks from E1 to O2 serving from 1942-1946 (remaining in the reserves until 1953). In my father’s time it was defintiely an advantage to have been a military veteran (he went to NYU business school on the GI Bill).

    By contrast, my experience as a veteran were very mixed. Many people have shown prejudice and negative attitudes towards my service. I was told, for example, not to list my military experience on my resume something I was reluctant to do. But when I did not include my military experience I got interviews and when I did have my military experience on my resume I did not get interviews.

    Naturally, I gravitated towards places and jobs where my military experience were valued because I was proud of my service. I am prouder of having graduated from Marine Corps OCS than NYU.

    I worked in construction for five years and the man who hired me was former Marine DI.

    After years of struggle to get a full time job a former Army Major (Korean War veteran) hired me as a full time high school teacher in Arvin, California. I got the job because I had the qualifications, because I spoke Spanish (most of our players were Spanish-speaking) I was willing to coach Soccer and baseball, because I was willing to teach night school because I was williing and able to support the high school JROTC program and because I was wiling to move to rural Kern County. For over 32 years I taught mostly poor and immigrant students. I taught History, English and Spanish for Native Speakers. I founded the AP program at my high school and taught AP Spanish, AP Spanish Literature and AP US History.

    My first job after the military and college was unloading railcars (something I did gladly and successfull I was young and strong then).

    I worked very hard at many jobs so as not to fall out of the middle class ( I felt at age 21-26 my middle class existence was very precarious). I did not have a phone, just a PO box and a 1972 Chrysler with over 100,000 miles. I never was quite homeless (slept in the back of the car or camped out showering at truck stops) and had very little money.

    But I was careful with my money, stayed sober and worked nights for years eventually getting my 5th Year Cerification in Spanish, Social Studies and English which led to a solid career in k-12 education with some stints in JC and as an adjunct professor for ETS grading AP exams. I have taught in Spain, Virginia, Washington State and California. All of our three children are college graduates. All three worked during college (IHOP etc), All three are fluent in Spanish and English. We made many personal sacrifices to raise our children as educated Spanish and English native speakers. Two are teachers and one is an engineer. I can honestly say sending three children to college was a group effort. We helped, their sibling helped and our children helped themselves by hard work and modest lifestyles.


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