Hilldrup’s Dilemma Is Not All Black And White
By Harvey Gates
Vol. 1, No. 2, 1978, pp. 3-4
In the September issue of Southern Changes, Mr. Robert P. Hilldrup struck a cord sensitive to my paternal instincts with his article entitled: “My Sons Are Growing Up Racists.”
His concern has wider implications than the family hearth. As a writer and father I feel compelled to respond, in my own way, to his comments because I am also concerned about the attitudes my Black sons will take in race relations.
We are both fathers looking at the same coin from different sides. However, I do not think our responsibilities as parents can be paralleled. We can both teach our children to respect mankind and all other objects and creatures in this universe, but his children will have to develop tolerance, indeed love, for Blacks from their vantage of power. My boys will have to develop the same sentiments from their point of powerlessness.
From my point of view, this makes his task easier. He can tell his boys that school is an institution in society that can be used for their benefit and he will not be hard put to think of examples.
He can tell them that in spite of affirmative action policies they will still have about 80 percent of the pie. He can tell them that the sacrifice he is making, buying their lunches, clothes, school supplies, etc., will be more than vindicated by the disparities between what my Black sons will earn and what they will earn. Finally, he can tell them that if they are not satisfied with their present arrangements he and their mother have it within their power to forget about their pursuit of justice and equality and move on like the rest of his White brothers.
I do not have these options to present my sons. They are part of a different army. They must march to the beat of a different drum. They must answer the call of a different bugler.
For a long time, we were separated in the South. We were separated by the proverbial railroad tracks, but this was just a physical manifestation of a larger and deeper separation. Whites and Blacks did not touch each other in any real or meaningful ways. We did not shake hands. We denied each other the basic civilities ordinarily accorded fellow human beings. We were, in the main, just objects to each other.
We did interact on a personal level and some of these interactions, despite their limitation (master and servant relationship), developed into genuine relationships. They became more than a mutually dependent arrangement. They went as deep as the feelings and sensitivities of the participants would permit. However, these were personal, single, individual relationships, and were not transmittable to progenitors, friends and fellow members of the race.
For example, when I was a member of a team studying racial violence in the 1960s, it was not uncommon for a Black or White participant in hand-to-hand combat to take time out and go to the rescue of a friend on the opposing team. I have seen instances of groups of Blacks cordoning off their favorite store in the community during uprisings to prevent any harm to the White proprietor and his property. These are some of the manifestations of the deeper personal relationships.
Our moral commitments are no deeper than our moral convictions. Our convictions are no deeper than our perceptions of ourselves and others. Before we can have the capacity for empathy we must understand the needs of others in terms of our own feelings, emotions and desires. White people and Black people have not arrived en masse at this level, nor has any other group where artificial barriers have existed for long periods of time.
When the word White is mentioned, Blacks get an image of the repressive machine which has by definition, legally and morally, treated them as less than a fellow human being.
This is true for the old and young alike (in both races). This is why my sons and Mr. Hilidrup’s sons will have friends on the personal level, but will be enemies on the group or institutional level. Until integration reaches the plateau of feeling and commitment found in these personal relationships, we are using words that have no real meanings. Our schools, shops, jobs and governments are no more integrated today than they were a century ago. We are just operating under the same roof.
Contrary to what is generally expressed, the greatest violence against Black people has not been the lash of the whip in slavery nor the pummelling of their bodies by negrophobes. The greatest violence that has been perpetrated on Black people has been White people’s indifference to their humanness.
Whiplashes heal and the scars are soon no more than timely reminders, but the injured spirit lives on and on as if transmitted through the genes. The responsibility of this condition cannot be attributed to any generation for it is the cumulative effect of the deeds of all generations.
Justice and equality for all is a costly pursuit. There are some people hi the world who do not care about the cost of anything as long as they are not the ones who have to pay the price. These persons offer lip service to a cause, but they will not spend a modicum of energy, or for that matter, suffer a moderate inconvenience for its fruition.
Anyone who would take up the Black people’s cross in this country will not have an easy time of it. They will find themselves often at odds with some of the basic institutions in society, not the least of which is the family.
It has never been clear to this country how she can live up to her tenets as outlined in the Declaration of Inde-
pendence (which does not have the force of law), and to the federal Constitution (which does have the force of law), without first improving the lot of the American Blacks.
Moreover, this task is further complicated when the plight of Blacks has to be improved without injury to Whites. This is the enigma our sons must face. My sons want justice and equality now. They deserve it and they can be accorded no less if they are still to be considered Americans. Hilldrup’s sons want the same thing. They also deserve it. Justice and equality should never have been a racial issue, but it has been and still is in this country. This is what forces our sons, Black and White, to be intolerant.
Hilldrup’s sons do not know what it means to be denied justice and equality because of race. So while I can appreciate Hilldrup’s concern about his sons’ racial attitudes, I can only sympathize with his plight. We are both, as parents, rowing in a sea of confusion, which one Swedish sociologist has called the “American Dilemma.” We do not know the answer. We may not have even asked the right questions yet, but Mr. Hilldrup is at least headed in the right direction. I take his comments seriously. Of course, neither of us will come up with a solution, but we are both concerned parents and on this score, at least, we are ahead of most of the others.
Harvey Gates, a columnist for the Atlanta Voice Newspaper, was the director of the Civil Agression Study Team at the Center for Research and Social Change at Emory University from 1966-69.