“It is impossible to struggle for rights, equal rights for blacks, without including whites. Because equal rights, fair play, justice are like the air: We all have it, or none of us has it. That is the truth of it.”
— Maya Angelou
The president of the Syracuse NAACP has this quote on the end of all her emails. We north country folks have been whipsawed lately between a fourth-grade “slave auction,” an Atlantic magazine writer praising our “tolerance” and one local praying for a mass shooting at a Watertown Pride event.
TV news assaults us with drowned or imprisoned Latino children or a president blaming Puerto Ricans for dying because the hurricanes cut off electricity to their hospitals. I can’t be objective here, in part because I loved hearing my San Juan in-laws call me Rolando.
Maya Angelou is on to something as a kinder, gentler way to tackle at least one facet of intolerance: black/white relations. Her theme may be one key to getting enough blue collar white voters to see what’s in it for them to support equal justice and opportunity for all. My fellow north country residents may be able to relate to some of these ideas.
By way of background, my involvement in this area goes back more than a half century. In the spring of 1967, I was one of the student organizers of a civil rights demonstration at Syracuse University, covered by film crews for CBS, ABC and NBC (not sure if Joe Biden joined in, among the thousands of fellow students back then who took part).
During the summer of 1968, I volunteered for James Farmer, leader of the Freedom Rides, while home on leave from the U.S. Navy. Three others who volunteered for Farmer a few years earlier had been murdered in Mississippi.
Much more recently, I helped with research on a 19th century north country/Canada Underground Railroad activity (“location, location, location”) for the North Star Underground Railroad Museum.
Decades of interest in these areas led to the concepts below, praised in 1996 by Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. as having national applicability. The Syracuse NAACP last month called these ideas “inspirational.”
Some veterans magazines report fertile KKK recruiting grounds among disgruntled white veterans, especially in the South. The 1967-8 U.S. Navy I was in was racially segregated in overseas duty stations, job assignments and housing. Racial tensions in our military are a clear and present danger to our homeland security.
Losing trust with the citizens on their beat, police sabotage their best crime-fighting tool: accurate, timely word on the street from the locals. Military police work in four different countries taught me this much.
Our fragile economy drags behind and limps along for all of us, undercut by lack of equal opportunity, education, worker productivity and consumer spending power among millions of Americans, far too often of color. Then billions of self-perpetuating tax dollars go for welfare and criminal justice efforts to deal with those unfairly left behind. Institutional racism, therefore, gives the lower 98 percent a no-win economy.
The expansion of Fort Drum in the 1980s was a local example of the 1960s Green Power argument of the Civil Rights movement: We all benefit when equality happens — the economic pie growing because all slices are equal. North country tolerance efforts played a part. This could work elsewhere.
A lack of equal opportunity in the health professions drains the talent pool for workers of color. This leaves the whole population less equipped to be protected from the ravages of disease and injury.
Nationwide, non-Hispanic white Americans in kindergarten are the new minority. Does any white grandparent wish their grandchildren to be treated like their own grandparents might have treated others?
Many church-going white Americans insist we are a “Christian” nation. Do they truly believe they can fool their God by mouthing the “Our Father” while treating others as less than family?
I’m sure that the collective north country brain power can think of many more and much better “selling points” along these lines to help our fellow caucasian citizens see the light — or at least feel the heat.
Roland Van Deusen is a Clayton resident. He served in the U.S. Navy and is a retired counselor.