When I was an 8-year old child in 1968, I took part in a voluntary school-bussing program to promote desegregation in Syracuse, New York. In the spring of 1968, soon after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, letters were sent to some families in the suburbs of Syracuse asking if they’d be interested in having their child attend a school in the inner city of Syracuse. At the time, I remember my father and mother debating why a young white boy like me should be allowed to go to a predominantly black school. Many relatives and family friends were concerned it may not be a good idea to send me far from my neighborhood. My father, who was an editor at a large newspaper in Syracuse, was supportive of me being bussed. In time, my mother became supportive of the idea too.
To my parent’s credit, they didn’t make the decision for me to attend the school and didn’t pressure me. Before a decision was made my parents asked me what I thought of the idea. At first I didn’t know what to think. However… I soon came to support the idea and agreed to change schools in the fall. The adventure had begun. To this day I still am glad I had the experience of going to Martin Luther King Elementary.
My memories of the school have many positive aspects. However, the transition to my new surroundings took a while. Although it was difficult to get used to sitting on a bus for over an hour a day, I eventually got used to the ride. In addition, many features of the school were radically different than what I was used to. For one, I felt alone as a young white boy in a sea of black faces. In addition, since we had very few blacks in my suburban school, I now knew what it was like to be a minority. Understandably, my appearance at the black school caused reactions in my black classmates. For more times than I can remember I was called “Honky” as I was jokingly asked by my classmates whether I was lost or why I was far from home.
Interestingly and contrary to the concerns of many, I was never beat-up or in any fights in my new school. Although there were a few times when I was nudged by assertive boys or glared at, I never had concerns for my well-being and made friends in my new school. In particular, I became close friends with two young black boys in my 4th grade who looked out for me. We made an interesting trio on the campus of school. In addition to my close friends looking out for me, what helped me cope was the fact I realized at a young age that who I was as an individual actually mattered more than the fact I was white. Soon after I got to my new surroundings I learned to defuse tensions caused by my whiteness. What I quickly learned was that if I was defensive or reacted angry to the joking caused by my appearance, that things could escalate.
When I look back on my experience with the integration of blacks and whites, I realize that the experience definitely helped me understand that it is who we are as human beings, regardless of race, that truly matters. As many of us remember, many appeals were made by leaders such as Martin Luther King to not only seek equality of opportunity for blacks, but to also have people focus on the content of the character of each person as opposed to just their skin color.
When we fast-forward to the issues of today, lets try to understand that the modern concept of white privilege can be used to judge a person solely on the color of their skin. To truly heal racial tensions in America it may be best if we try not to look at outward appearance and race as a predominant factor in our lives. Obviously, racial differences are there and cannot be ignored. And yes…there is such a thing as the fact that certain whites go through life in ways that may be easier than some blacks. However, if we focus on race predominantly in judging individuals we’re basically reinforcing a stereotypical approach.
In today’s America it is valid to seek equality of opportunity for minorities. However, to make race such an intense focus in our day to day lives creates high levels of tension throughout all of society. Ultimately, and in the final analysis, it is the content of our character as individuals that matters most in life. When all Americans of all races put the quality of an individual’s character above their outward appearance, we may finally get to the place that Martin Luther King dreamt about.