Race relations have come a long way - but not far enough

Contributing writerJuly 14, 2013 

'I just love Tacoma" she exclaimed.

This was many years ago, and I was even deeper than usual into my ambivalence regarding Tacoma.

She had just moved here from Kentucky and was, to a large degree, perhaps, speaking with the exuberance of living in a new city. But even then I knew that she was addressing what is possibly true of every hometown; we don't notice many things until outsiders point them out.

So I had to ask: "What do you love about Tacoma?"

"I love Tacoma because it's so integrated!"

I didn't understand her before, but now I was completely baffled.

My limited understanding of "integration" was as a legal term which embodied forced busing, racial quotas, riots in the streets and enraged public opposition - and it was usually public agencies or authorities forcing policies on schoolchildren or local businesses or neighborhoods.

I saw no evidence - or even a hint - of that in Tacoma.

Finally, she said, "Look at any public sidewalk; what do you see?"

Still not getting it, I guessed, "I see people walking outside on a summer evening."

"Look closer."

"I see families and couples walking."

"Look closer."

Finally I said, "What do you see?"

"I see mixed-race couples on almost every sidewalk in pretty much every neighborhood!"

She was approaching a eureka moment here.

She continued "Do you know how rare that is?"

I had absolutely no idea how "rare" that was. In fact, I still barely comprehended what she was talking about.

I had grown up near what had been called Fort Lewis and McChord Air Force Base. My neighbors and classmates had been stationed all over the world.

Many of the kids I played with and went to school with had mothers from Germany, France, Japan, Korea, the Pacific Islands and much more. Most of their fathers were Caucasian, but many weren't; they were Hispanic or African American.

That was my normal. There was nothing "rare" about it.

Neighborhoods in Tacoma were far less "mixed" than I was accustomed to. But to her, it was a revelation, a sign that, contrary to her experience, such a thing was possible - not only doable, but constructive, valuable and liberating, even desirable.

She had seen the full, vile and dehumanizing force of individual and institutional racism, white privilege and black oppression and injustice. And she saw what she could barely imagine, walking by, without notice, or official interference, on the streets of Tacoma.

That was many years ago, and she and I shared the youthful and naive fantasy that racism had run its course and was a dying vestige of a barbaric, ignorant and violent belief system.

The abuses and brutality of such a system would certainly never be a part of our generation's world - or of any stable civil society. Segregation and voting restrictions might have been acceptable in some areas, but would certainly never be tolerated again.

We were wrong, of course. Racism still exists, even in Tacoma.

And I still marvel when I see it. It's as if people want to be petty, ugly and ignorant.

I've seen people cheer and cry at mixed-race marriages, births and celebrations. And I've seen tears of fear and despair when integration comes too close to home.

And it makes me wonder what it will take for us to live in our neighborhoods and walk down our sidewalks in the understanding of, and even celebration of, our founding fathers' core assumption that "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

M. (Morf) Morford of Tacoma is a former reader columnist. Email him at mmorf@mail.com.

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