We've come a long way

Georgie Anne Geyer

August 26, 1993|By Georgie Anne Geyer

YES, Aug. 28, 1963, was a long time ago. I live in Washington now, more or less, and this is a very different country from what it was when, as a young reporter, I covered the great March on Washington for the Chicago Daily News.

So, as we celebrate this 30th anniversary, perhaps we should ask: Where are we now?

Well, the common "wisdom" has it that America has made no or at least very little progress on race. You can pick up almost any newspaper or magazine and hear about how young Americans think there is more racism and hatred than ever: that we have really gone backward.

Well, hey, let's think with a little common sense instead of all that common wisdom. The truth is that this country has come a long, long way, baby!

When I grew up on the South Side of Chicago near black neighborhoods, white folk were generally terrified of black folk, mostly because they were so poor and seemed so threatening -- today, fully two-thirds of black Americans or African-Americans are middle class or working class. You only need to drive through the beautiful, leafy middle-class neighborhoods of Northeast Washington to see how middle-class black America cares for its homes and families.

When I was working for the Southtown Economist in Chicago, I used to take my lunch hour to walk into the black neighbor- The common 'wisdom' has it that America has made little or no progress on race. You can pick up any newspaper or magazine and hear how young Americans think we have really gone backward.

hood that was enticingly just outside the newspaper and talk with an old black man that I got to know. We would sit on his stoop and talk about just everything in the world. I loved the experience because it was a bit like entering a foreign country.

Today I have so many black friends, and from so many different countries, and we share so many ideas and concepts of life, that I would be hard-pressed to count them or to think them different in the slightest.

But as I went back and read the accompanying column from 1963 -- and in doing so I experienced again some of the tingling emotional joy that I felt that day -- I realized that I did feel the same about one thing. That was the activists and advocates who had wanted to turn that day of confirmation into a day of nihilism and negation.

Today I see the same ideological and ambitious folks around, and they are skewing our realization of how great a step we have taken not only toward racial tolerance (which after all is a kind of neutral thing) but beyond, to racial understanding and harmony (which involve willed emotions).

We started out wonderfully in 1963 with the march, but in the late '60s, just as civil rights became a real and working part of our society, the activists and advocates could not bear to accept that America really had changed -- not enough, but it had changed. If they accepted it, they lost their organizing jobs. And so, we had to keep hearing that everything was as bad as ever, that America had made no progress . . .

Well, hogwash! Sure we have new problems -- the fact that the poorest black Americans were left behind in the ghettoes when middle-class blacks moved out is indeed a big problem -- but every advancement creates new problems. That, my friends, is the dialectic of life, and it is just something that we must recognize and then work to solve.

A small group of us on the Chicago Daily News also moved in those years of the early '60s to integrate the paper -- and the editors did it. Before that, the papers had almost no black reporters and did not even cover the black Chicago community, with its great history and cultural richness (and crime and poverty as well).

Then we did cover it. We got more and more black reporters. But that took circulation away from the black newspapers. Change often means more, and often unpredicted, change.

Finally, thinking back on that hot, sunny, magnificent day of 30 years ago, I find myself drawing upon my later overseas experience and would like to tell the nay-sayers to look around the world. There is no other country that has even tried to integrate itself to this extent, and there are almost no other peoples who even strive to have a universalist ethic that includes all human beings in equality under the law.

Indeed, everywhere we look there is tribe fighting tribe (often, in Africa, over skin color), clan killing clan, ethnic group massacring ethnic group. I wish more people read history -- or even just looked around.

Yes, there is surely more to be done, but look where we have come. I remember the joy in those old people's eyes back then, and can feel the passion of their basic faith in this country, a belief that we must never let fail.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a syndicated columnist.

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