Growing up in the small northwestern Minnesota town of Crookston, I didn’t have very much interaction with minorities.
In sixth grade, the only year I attended public school, Angela Mendez was in my class. I knew her older brother, Ruben, and a younger brother, Vincent. When I was in high school, one of my friends was Andy Villegas.
Both the Mendez and Villegas families were of Mexican descent. They settled in the area after traveling from Texas as migrant workers in the 1940s and 1950s.
And when my family went camping at Pike Bay near Cass Lake, Minn., Mom and Dad sometimes took us to nearby Walker, to watch a Native-American powwow performed by the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (they were called Chippewa back then).
Later, when I was at Mount St. Benedict High School, there were two African-American students — Ramelle Rothschild and Stephanie Johnson — and a Chinese-American, Agnes Chang. All were “boarders” — boarding students — at the Catholic institution and were well-accepted as friends and classmates. That’s the way we were taught by the sisters of St. Benedict. Treat everyone as equals.
Before those instances, the closest I came to meeting a person of color was looking at pictures in magazines such as Ebony and Look.
So, I was in for a big surprise when I went away to college at Bemidji State College and Moorhead State College, which both had many more minority students. I worked with a few of them at the MSC school newspaper, The Advocate, studied with others and counted a bunch of them as friends.
And even though the Civil Rights Act had been passed only a few years earlier in 1964, thanks largely to a few brave individuals and organizations, discrimination based on race as well as color, religion, sex or national origin was far from being eliminated in the U.S.
A lot has changed since I was in college, but the specter of discrimination still hangs over our great country. All you have to do is turn on the evening news to see what I mean.
Just the other night, when eating supper and watching a network report — with my 16-year-old mixed race grandson sitting across from me — the top stories of the day were ones about a police officer shooting an unarmed young black man in Wisconsin, college fraternity members singing racist songs on a video at the University of Oklahoma and a Davis Cup tennis match in Brazil being marred by racist taunts of spectators. That was all on one half-hour show.
On other nights, there often are stories about people being scrutinized because of their religious or sexual preference.
But I don’t have to be watching TV to come in contact with discrimination. Not too many years ago, a former partner of mine in a hunting house in eastern Montana told me how his parents had just bought a different condo in Florida because the one they previously owned was in a neighborhood that was getting “too dark.”
And I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to listen to other so-called “good people” from around the area who make disparaging remarks about Native Americans and alcohol abuse.
Or there was the instance when a friend asked me if a colleague was a Christian, which to me promotes the pernicious idea that non-Christians are second-class citizens or worse.
I can’t help but feel that my grandson is feeling a little scared by all of this. I would have been as a teen. It’s not easy for Therese and I to tell him that just because his skin is brown that he will be treated differently than his friends who are white.
And how do we do stress to him that things in the U.S. aren’t as bad as they used to be? That there are no more events such as 1965’s Bloody Sunday in Selma, Ala., that police officers are their friends, that colleges are dealing harshly with campus groups that are acting badly and that sports have changed a lot over the years?
Despite all of the advances we’ve made in those areas, everything still is not well.
But what can we do?
It has to start with each and every one of us. We must step up and confront those who promote and encourage backward behavior and thinking — for the good of our country.
But until that happens, we won’t be any better than the ISIS terrorists we abhor.