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NOTIONS: Beyond the biased barriers of Beaver Cleaverville

March 24, 2008

I grew up on the outskirts of Omaha, Neb.; Lafayette and Fort Wayne. Each time we moved, we wound up near the line where the suburbs met the farm fields.

For a kid, this had advantages. You could ride your bike down miles of country roads, hike through newly plowed furrows or climb through construction sites after the Amish workers had called it a day.

Mostly, you watched one world advance and the other retreat.

The houses in our neighborhoods looked alike. So did the people. The neighbors were white. The kids at school were white. The teachers and principals were white. The folks at church were white. The ministers were white. My dad's co-workers were white.

It was, in short, a homogenized, Beaver Cleaver, middle-class world.

I wasn't unaware or uninformed about other races and economic realities. My parents had grown up in Depression-era poverty. My mom told stories of scrounging for food in the dump and getting only an orange for Christmas. My dad's dad worked the night trick as a telegrapher to put food on the table.

On our black-and-white TV, I saw race riots in big cities, nameless Asians being killed in Vietnam, and "colored" people being barred from colleges and restaurants down south. I saw the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marching, and preaching and then being shot.

Then, when I was in the eighth grade, race arrived at my schoolhouse door. That year, following a judge's order, the Fort Wayne Community Schools desegregated. One morning, buses full of black kids rolled up to our lily-white suburban junior high, and everyone grew antsy.

People traveled in packs. There were fights. There was mace in the hallways. There were "black lists" of kids who were allegedly "going down" (it never happened). Each day, when we sat in the cafeteria and bowed our heads in a "moment of silence," all the white kids were at self-designated white-kids'tables and all the black kids were at self-designated black-kids' tables.

Things calmed down later that year and in my high school years that followed. But in those early days of "integration," there was still plenty of segregation: The "inner-city" kids had to do all the commuting. The authority figures-teachers, administrators, counselors-were predominantly white. The social cliques remained mostly monochromatic. And with very few exceptions, interracial dating was taboo.

The judge could mandate our physical proximity to one another. He could not dictate social interaction or human understanding. To their credit, my white teachers in grades K-12 taught me the historical basics of slavery, the Civil War, the civil rights movement and women's suffrage. My white teachers in college added deeper understanding of inequality and discrimination. But I learned more about what unites and divides us from other kinds of teachers and lessons: By visiting places of worship of many faiths; By watching my mom, my women bosses, and my women friends and co-workers explore feminism and post-feminism; By listening to the radio commentaries of then-National Urban League President Vernon Jordan; By reading Taylor Branch's history of Martin Luther King Jr.; By reciting, over and over, King's speeches; By reading the works of Jamaica Kincaid and Alice Walker, Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Morrison and Walter Mosley, Ralph Ellison and John Edgar Wideman, Virginia Woolf and Doris Lessing; By working with gays and lesbians to fight AIDS; By working with Special Olympics to help people with intellectual disabilities; By savoring my wife's deep and broad studies of spirituality; And by absorbing, for years on end, not only those with whom I agree, but also those whose ideas disturb me.

As I sat in my office last week, watching the online reaction to Sen. Barack Obama's speech about race in America, I saw some who said, in essence, "If he didn't agree with some of the things his former pastor said-if he found them controversial-then why did he continue to listen? Why didn't he object? Why didn't he walk out?"

I can't say why Obama stayed to listen. I don't know whether he aired his concerns. I also can't say whether Sen. Hillary Clinton ever challenged her pastor. Or whether Sen. John McCain ever questioned his.

But I am glad that someone in politics listened long enough and cared deeply enough to understand both black anger and white resentment. And I dare to hope that whoever is elected president will do more to bridge racial, gender, economic and other differences that divide us.

Mostly, I hope our new president will get out of her or his own little world. If more leaders (and citizens) would observe and listen long enough to understand differing opinions, grievances and passions-instead of isolating themselves from what they don't like to hear-the chasms dividing us would not run so deep and wide.



Hetrick is chairman and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears twice a month. He can be reached at bhetrick@ibj.com.
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