Race relations

Race relations

With a black president-elect and with traces of racism (re)appearing, even in Jewish day schools, racism has been greatly on my mind.

The spring of 1968, we were living in St. Louis, Mo. My husband, Warren Boroson, was the editor of Trans-Action, a sociology magazine published by Washington University there. (Eventually the magazine changed its name to Society and moved to New Jersey, where it was published by Rutgers University.)

The magazine had two interns – Phyllis Malamud, who helped break Newsweek’s “glass ceiling” for women and went on to become a general editor there, and Charlayne Hunter, who went on to break all sorts of glass ceilings (and is now Charlayne Hunter-Gault).

I did not know her history then. I did not know that she had been one of two black students (the term “African-American” was not used at that time, to the best of my recollection) to integrate the University of Georgia. She and a young man, Hamilton Holmes, registered at the same time. He became a doctor and she a highly respected journalist, perhaps best known as the long-time national correspondent for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour on PBS. She won many awards during her career, including two Emmys and a Peabody.

At any rate, that spring in St. Louis, as we watched the news on our black-and-white television (in our lily-white neighborhood), we heard with shock that Martin Luther King had been assassinated.

My first thought was to call Charlayne – not, I stress, because I knew of her personal connection with Dr. King but simply because she was black.

That was a perhaps racist assumption – taking it for granted that the assassination would be of special importance to her because of their shared blackness. I was not calling her as one American grieving at the murder of another American – although I did grieve – but to offer my condolences, as if a member of her family (but not mine) had died.

But she didn’t seem to notice what in retrospect seems like condescension – albeit good-hearted condescension. All black people were catapulted into mourning. The mass of white Americans grieved as well, but there was distance in our grief. He was their Moses. We did not yet perceive him as a hero for all America.

Meanwhile, around that same time, a neighbor in that lily-white suburb asked my husband to help him with his résumé. Across the top, in capital letters were these words: MALE CAUCASIAN.

He probably had nothing else going for him – and who knows? In the St. Louis of those days, being both may have been a selling point.