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Pyle: America's Original Sin

Published July 26, 2013 5:38 pm
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Lock your door, my dad said to me, in a voice that was intended to be urgent but to fall short of frightening a child, which I was.

We were driving away from a Kansas City Royals game at old Municipal Stadium, 22nd and Brooklyn. It was late, dark and traffic jammed the smallish streets in the residential neighborhood around the old ballpark. A mostly black residential neighborhood. A neighborhood where it was routine for white families from the 'burbs — or, in our case, from the middle of Kansas — to pay a silent old black man to park their car in his yard.

My old man was about as liberal on race issues as a white guy who was born in a tiny Kansas town could be.

As a city manager, he hired, promoted and mentored black people, from garage workers to secretaries to the high school classmate of mine who was getting his combined law and masters of public administration degree.

He walked up to Jesse Jackson in the Chicago airport just to shake his hand.

After he worked an extra hour to help her get a last-minute parade permit, to which she was clearly entitled, the chairwoman of the local NAACP bestowed upon my father the title of Honorary Black Man. He loved that.

But at that moment, after dark in that neighborhood in a poor section of a big city, leaving a stadium he had a role in building while working at K.C. City Hall, alone with his young (oh, I don't know, maybe 12) son, he was still uncomfortable enough to think that white folks driving cars through black neighborhoods should do so with their doors locked.

Just like Barack Obama said a few days ago, "There are very few African-American men who haven't had the experience of walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars."

He was talking about the not guilty verdict in the trial of George Zimmerman, who had killed a black teenager named Trayvon Martin and made a good-enough claim of self-defense to get himself acquitted.

"It's important to recognize," Obama said, "that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."

And no matter what Obama says, no matter how many black people get elected president, that history is not going away. Ever.

Racism, in the extreme form of slavery, is the Original Sin in which the United States was conceived.

Slavery lasted for hundreds of years, was encoded into the Constitution, and was thrown off only at the price of a horrendously bloody civil war.

Then it immediately circled back for about another century of Jim Crow, where segregation was not only tolerated, but mandated by law. The most basic rights of human dignity, never mind civic participation, were systematically denied.

The most powerful part of Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from a Birmingham Jail" is not about voting or riding buses. It's about how black fathers have to tell their children they can't go to the local amusement park they've seen advertised because it is segregated. That, as King said, is a blow to a person's manhood that rises to the level of violence.

So now, when pundits and politicians say that the evil days of racism in America are behind us and black folks and white liberals should just get over it, when the Supreme Court voids part of the Voting Rights Act on the grounds that the evil it was intended to correct is gone, they are in open denial of a genetic trait that may have become recessive, but will never, ever be removed from our DNA.

Just forget it? That's like saying that the Romans haven't crucified any Jews lately, so the whole of the Christian world should just let all that unpleasantness go.

George Pyle, a Tribune editorial writer, is so white that he thought the man's name was Malcolm the Tenth. gpyle@sltrib.com.




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