Washington, DC, is probably one of the most diverse places I’ve ever been. People from all over the world inhabit the nation’s capital. Immigrants fill the city. Indians owned the hotel where we stayed. Restaurants were owned and filled with brown people who had accents. Many bureaucrats, taxi drivers, and business owners came from other places. The greeter at the Capitol Visitor Center wore a hijab and spoke with a voice with overtones, it seemed to me, of India or Pakistan.
Everywhere, Black Americans held jobs of consequence—train engineers, federal police and security forces, police officers, business managers, and business people. We have them in Kansas City, for sure, but not in the great abundance you see in Washington. Here, Black Americans are everywhere in number. It’s glaringly apparent that a significant portion of the population was black, not just a sliver living in partitioned areas like in Kansas City, but many, in all sorts of occupations.
It was refreshing to see people who weren’t limited to ethnic restaurants and service jobs. Certainly, many were in service but many of their bosses and their bosses bosses were black or some sort of ethnic or immigrant background.
This should be so noteworthy for a couple of reasons. First, I live in an area of town were whites are in the minority. Most of my neighbors work for a living at the bottoms of the wage and color hierarchy. The people in charge are mostly white. The city employs a lot of people of color, some in supervisory positions. But when it comes right down to the centers of power, except in the mayor’s office, white people handle the controls.
As a white person who grew up in one of those homes that tolerated black people but was always cautious about, if not downright intolerant, of race mixing. They have their own culture, my parents told me. They had different life priorities. They like to keep to their own kind. They have their own way of doing things. While I heard these statements and was often forced to live by them, what I knew was that when I played with black kids, we played, we threw the ball and caught it, we hid while the other sought.
That what I was told and my reality didn’t line up caused me all sorts of psychic displacement. How could the people I loved and who loved me be so wrong? Why couldn’t I play with the black kids? Why did I get in trouble when I did play with them?
These questions stuck with me as I grew older. While I used the language of racism and acted unjustly as a pre-teen, when I hit my coming-of-age years, I was in full revolt.
That’s what makes me so sensitive to the questions of who’s in charge and who is not. I find Washington refreshing because it’s almost as if the world gets turned on its head in the city. Black people in charge? A Muslim immigrant greeting people to the Capitol? What a crazy world this is.
I think about Washington and think about the world my son Nick is growing up in. I look out my front window when he’s playing across the street. Most of the time, if not all the time, he’s the only white kid. I look into my memory now and can’t think of a time he played with the neighborhood kids and he wasn’t the only white kid. They play. The throw and catch the ball. They have sword fights with sticks. They fire off their Nerf guns at each other. I wonder if they are thinking, well, that’s a white kid, that’s a black kid, that kid’s got parents from Guatemala.
As far as I can see, Nick’s not living in the world I grew up in. He goes to a school where white kids are the minority. It’s a special school. They only let the smart kids and high-functioning students. He’s smart. They call him a “walk-in.” Because of his grade school grades and attendance, he didn’t have to take the qualifying test to get in.
This means, if he’s in the minority, that he’s growing up with black, Hispanic, and immigrant kids who are high achievers. He sees that people of color can and do get along, help each other, and do well in school. I can’t say what would happen to him or what he would see in a run-of-the-mill Kansas City public school. I hope he would learn the same lessons.
When we go to the swimming pool in the summer, he’s one of the few white kids in the neighborhood taking a dip. He doesn’t have to think about “getting some on him” when he’s in that pool, like I did when I was a kid.
That means that when he was in Washington, he likely did not notice the blacks and immigrants in charge of important functions in the city. Or, maybe he did. Maybe he did notice. He’s hard to read. But I know that race didn’t take up too much of his time, except for maybe when we were in the National African American Museum or the National American Indian Museum.
He certainly knows that racism exists. Even in his 13-year-old mind, he sees and understands the coded language of racism, especially as he witnesses the presidential contests. He deplores Donald Trump’s rhetoric. He knows that when Ted Cruz talks about people needing to work that he’s talking about all those poor blacks who Cruz thinks are poor because they want to be. He finds the anti-immigrant sentiment the candidates tap distasteful.
So, while the kid isn’t growing up in the world I did, he still has to taste racial turmoil. It isn’t fair. It wasn’t fair to me when I was growing up. It’s not to any kid who enters the world in a state of innocence. But it’s the American scourge. I should not have to notice that blacks and immigrants in Washington hold positions of power and that those in my town do not.
Original sin, as I learned it in school, was the mark you were born with. You didn’t ask for it. You did nothing to earn it. It was just on you because you were human. Racism is America’s original sin. You don’t ask to be born in a world riven by racialist ideas. Nick didn’t get lucky enough to escape the original sin. Maybe his children won’t either. But their world as children will be much different than Nick’s. Maybe it will be a purer place, cleaner, without the divisions that come with the original sin.
And perhaps racism is something we grow out of. Generations down the line may live in a colorblind world where race isn’t even thought of in school or work or social life.