Guest Column: A history of racism
Guest Column: A history of racism
By: Fred Kahn in The Diamondback, University of Maryland's Independent Student Newspaper, College Park, Maryland, USA, February 10, 2009I arrived in the United States on March 3, 1952, from Belgium, having survived the Holocaust. I must admit my ignorance - until then, I was totally unaware of people discriminating against others because of their different skin color.
At the time, a black person could not use the same restroom as white people, a black person could not be served in some restaurants, and a black student at this university could not sit down and eat at a restaurant in College Park. A black person could not play football, basketball or any other sports at the university.
At that time, some of the humiliation inflicted on black people was almost the same as that inflicted by the Nazis on Jews in Germany in the 1930s, well before they were deported to death camps. For me, this is an intensely personal issue - the parents who reared me were among those sent to the death camps.
That was the America I discovered to my surprise. Before my immigration, I was unaware of the segregation in the U.S. Given my personal history, I instinctively dismissed any such behavior as abhorrent. I am pleased to report that I was always open-minded. For example, when I was in the U.S. Army in 1953 (soon after it was desegregated), I had as many black buddies as any other.
In my junior year at the university, I was appointed to the U.S. delegation to the Brussels World's Fair in 1958. The dean asked me to room with a dark-skinned fellow worker because nobody else wanted to room with him. Among those who refused were lighter-skinned "Negroes," the term in usage at the time.
During the six months I roomed with John Yancey from Brooklyn, N.Y., I learned a great deal about the life of darker-skinned Americans. He and I were pictured together in 1958 in a national black magazine.
In November 1959, I was involved in an event that led to the desegregation of restaurants in College Park. A fellow black student was discriminated against and refused service in my company. The incident was reported in a local paper and featured in an editorial by The Diamondback.
Fifty years ago, an exhibit featured at the U.S. Pavilion at the world's fair, titled "Unfinished Business" and depicting racial problems in the U.S., was forced to close during the fair because of political pressure. The exhibit depicted the unfinished business regarding equality of Americans and admitted the then-awful discrimination still rampant in 1958.
Ten of my colleagues, including my roommate, who worked at the exhibit, as well as Professor Emeritus Charles Butterworth, wrote a letter of protest to then-President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who acknowledged it in a response to the American guides of the U.S. Pavilion.
Although economic problems are at center stage as the nation's unfinished business, the U.S. has to grapple with the "unfinished business" of eliminating any trace of racial discrimination wherever it now subtly exists. The election of President Obama is a major step forward, but it does not mean that the still-lingering racial discrimination in some areas can be dismissed. It does not mean that the gap in education, especially substantial among blacks and minorities, can be ignored. As students at this university, you all have a responsibility to seize the moment and contribute to a more perfect country where all skin colors, nationalities and religions are equally respected.
Fred Kahn is a university alumnus who graduated in 1960 and a former Diamondback columnist. He can be reached at lejeune42@....Thu Feb 12, 2009 9:47 am"Freddy" <lejeune42@...>lejeune42