We Shall Overcome
The head of the NAACP talks to the Weekly about discrimination large and small.
Thursday, February 21, 2013
Days after hosting the 44th NAACP Image Awards in Los Angeles, NAACP President/CEO Ben Jealous spoke to the Weekly about growing up biracial on the Peninsula, various fronts in the modern civil rights movement, and his mom’s new book, Combined Destinies: Whites Sharing Grief About Racism.
Weekly: Did you experience racism growing up on the Peninsula?
Ben Jealous: Monterey County, historically, has been divided by freeways the way some places are divided by railroad tracks. [Sighs]. My life spanned all those. Born in Carmel, graduated from Ord Terrace and bussed to segregated Seaside, went to high school halfway to Salinas on [Highway] 68. There was a lot of life in Monterey County spread out amongst a group of activists that was wonderful and inclusive. But race was always present.
When I was 5 or 6 years old, in the five-and-dime, Sprouse Reitz, in P.G., and was followed, me and another kid. Meanwhile other kids are running around, in and out the store. [Race was] present when I would ride the bus from P.G. to Seaside every day – only black kid on the white bus – the integration bus to the magnet program at Ord Terrace. It was a weird thing because you were an outsider on the bus, and at school because you rode the bus. First 2 years of elementary at Robert Down, I got in a fight with a kid who mistook my mom [Ann Todd Jealous, who is black] for a nanny. My mom shouted at a realtor who presumed she was a military wife because she was black in Carmel.
Race was always there. When we went to market, the suspicion we were treated with in P.G. When we would shop next to Mom’s Soul Food, Ray’s Department store. Occasionally, flare ups on the school yard. Also in high school, when black friends going to school at [Robert Louis Stevenson] were being stopped in P.G. The all-star gospel choir eliciting massive police response at McDonald’s because a resident said she saw a bunch of drug dealers going in. For me, growing up in PG was a haven but not an escape. I was surrounded by the ocean. I could ride waves at Asilomar and explore beaches, but still the reality of our country intruded.
The other thing I gotta say is it was always right below the surface. You realized where you were living was [once] home to a large Native American [settlement], the Mexican state of Alta California, home to Japanese-American farmers, home to many Buffalo Soldiers and Chinese fishermen – all of whom were attacked in one way or another because of their race. I remember talking to my parents about finding the old racially restrictive covenant on the house they bought. The awkwardness of the [Chinese] Feast of Lanterns and Good Old Days. The Feast of Lanterns was older and was representative of the fact that there had been a vibrant Chinese community there. And then the Good Old Days – Native Americans, blacks, Latinos, Asian-Americans were not represented in it.
[The Peninsula] was, in many ways, a better life than many could imagine. Race was always there, with some police, shopkeepers, kids on the school yard.
Your mother and [co-editor/writer] Caroline Haskell approach racism from a psychological, almost clinical, point of view. What kind of point of view helped you?
My grandmother told me when I was young that the only way to deal with racists was to feel sorry for them. You might have to deal with any issues, but ultimately you couldn’t change them. They were suffering from a problem only they could cure. They were deserving of our pity. It was a sad predicament they were stuck in – not being able to see their fellow human being because of color, hair or heritage. That [perspective], in many ways, is a nonviolent perspective. The man who says he’s my enemy may elicit my outrage but ulitmatley deserves some sympathy. In believing I am less than, he’s made himself less than.
What surprised you most about the book?
I had known [civil rights activist] Robert Zimmerman for years. I never knew that his father was a clansman. Nor the experiences that he suffered through as a result. I know Robert as a brilliant, warm, inclusive, nonviolent warrior for justice. It’s a reminder that while we’re all like our parents, we don’t have to harbor their fears or resentments. In a generation we can transform ourselves and our families beyond the inertia of generations of hatred and divisions.
How are all our destinies combined?
Every day our children say the Pledge of Allegiance… “One nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all.” As adults, our lives have taught us that that is an aspiration. Our children believe this is the country that they live in, from birth. Our country’s statement of purpose says we are interconnected, are one, are one nation. Our repsonibility as adults is to transform that into our situation. It’s our obligation as Americans to be the home of the free, to have liberty and justice for all of us. That’s fundamentally what [Combined Destinies] says, that all of us suffer when we as country don’t rise up to our stated ideals, don’t measure up to the promise we’ve made to our children. It should be common sense but for some it’s revelatory – that you can’t hate someone else without diminishing yourself. Many people don’t understand that it’s not just who is hated who is hurt.
This is political question and the primary motivator is self-interest. My mom looks at things with the discipline of psychotherapist; I look at them with the urgency of a social movement leader. My hope, my prayer, is that this book helps people see how racism hurts everybody: the hater, the hated and the bystander.
What is the best way to counter prejudice, hatred, fear?
The antidote to fear is courage. My mom told me as a child it was my responsiblity to do one thing that scared me. That’s a discipline for turning a nervous kid into a courageous grown-up. That’s our responsibility as Americans [living in] the greatest country the world has ever known, this crossroads of civilizations. Each of us harbors hangups and is diminished when one of us refuses to engage and overcome it. As long as people are discriminated against because of sexual orientation, race, country of origin, our country is less than it could be, should be, than it says it is. And so are we. This book is a call to action for every person who regrets that racism still exists.
Why have you extended that message into the area of marriage equality?
Racism directed at Native Americans and African Americans is the original sin of our country, but the first in a long list of similar sins. Not the same, but they work in slightly different ways. The Supreme Court is attacking affirmative action, marriage rights, women’s rights, the ballot box. In this moment what we’ve learned again and again is we have a false choice and a real choice. The false one is to vulcanize. That will fail, because at end of the day, democracy matters.
What gives me hope about the book is that the country is ready for it. We have the most diverse generation and the most inclusive generation of American’s we’ve known. And the least possesses by the ghosts of our former selves.
What can people, who may not be inclined to be politically active, who may not be especially educated or socially conscious, do to make things better?
It’s ultimately the small actions that add up the quickest and matter most. There was a New York Times article about people in Southern towns who overcome deep divisions because they just decided to talk to the person next to them in the jobless lines. People are more isolated than they should be. Racism and xenophobia and fear of the other, of people who are different, plays a major role in a society in which we’re increasinging mobile and mixed together. What this book offers people is the promise of being closer to your neighbor, your fellow American.
Anything else you would like to add, on your own accord?
Thank God the Pinnacles are now a National Park. [Laughs]. Total non sequitur. My mom really put her heart and herself out there.