20 July 2020

 The period from 1945 to 1955 was an idyllic time to grow up in the United States. We were beyond the hardships of “frontier life.” The World War was over. People had jobs and, if they weren’t rich, they had enough to get by. There were diseases, but the worst of them were being conquered. Doctors came to your house, rather than having you sit in an airless office with 30 other people, all hoping to be called to their appointment within an hour or so. Bad things happened, but there was no “stranger danger;” kids traveled alone or in groups with little fear of being molested. There were few drugs, few guns, and no policeman in “Star Wars” battle attire. Schools were safe, without chain link fences and monitoring guards. People seldom locked their doors, and seldom suffered from it. You could park your car in your driveway or at a trail head, with little fear of vandalism. All in all, it was a very good time to be a child

*  *  *

    Of course, in and around those same “idyllic” years, some other things were happening. For example:

1.  In 1954, in “Brown vs Board of Education,” our Supreme Court declared that, under our Constitution, White and Black children were guaranteed equal education, giving Black youths the “right” to be in the same schools as White kids. In response, White parents pulled their children out of public schools in the South and enrolled them in all-White private academies. When attempts were made to integrate Little Rock High School in 1957, the Governor of Arkansas used National Guard troops to keep Black children out. President Eisenhower retaliated by sending in the U. S. military to protect the children. The Black children were admitted, but Little Rock responded by closing all its public schools to everyone in 1958.

   During that time, more than 100 Southern congressman – our national lawmakers – drafted a “Southern Manifesto,” in which they stated they would actively defend segregation, no matter what the courts said..

   In Oakland – my “idyllic” hometown – in the years following the end of World War II, there was a tremendous influx of people seeking homes and work in the Bay Area. Through the Federal Housing Administration, over 30,000 public housing units were created, many of them in White suburban areas that had “rules” against Black residents. West Oakland, already home to 60 percent of the Blacks in Oakland, gradually housed 80 percent of them. Overcrowding and poor living conditions were the norm. To add to the misery, the development of the Nimitz Freeway in the mid-1950s was accompanied by the destruction of whole West Oakland neighborhoods, with no mitigation made.

   When racial tensions increased after the war, the Oakland Police Department began to purposely recruit officers from the South to patrol the Black neighborhoods, presumably because those Southerners knew how to “handle” Blacks.


2.   Also in 1954, the Immigration and Naturalization Service initiated a highly aggressive program labeled Operation Wetback, meant to round up and deport illegal Mexican immigrants. By raiding farms and Hispanic neighborhoods, and by making random vehicle checks and examining identification cards, close to a million Mexican nationals were deported. They weren’t just dumped across the border; they were put on buses and ships, and taken far into southern Mexico, presumably to keep them from making an early return. There were many complaints about the methods used and police brutality, but the program persisted for some time.


3.  The late 1940s also saw the beginning of a program to “solve” the Native American “problem.” President Truman put together a panel of his Cabinet members, congressmen, and other (White) appointees to come up with the plan. Presumably, the task of the panel was to “streamline government.” In essence, the plan they came up with  consisted of giving Indians a few hundred dollars and one-way bus tickets to some city, where presumably they would more or less disappear into the larger population. By getting the Indians off their lands, the Bureau of Indian Affairs could be eliminated, and tribal lands could be made available for purchase, development, and taxation. Many Native Americans took the offer, “got lost” in the city, and became more of the middle city impoverished.


4.  The late 1940s saw over 112,000 Japanese-Americans returning home from five years as prisoners in isolated detention camps – tent and shack cities behind barbed wire fences, with armed guards patrolling the perimeter. Their crimes? Being (and sometimes just looking like) Japanese, in the days after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. Most of those imprisoned were second- and third-generation Americans – most had probably never been to Japan. They were Americans – our neighbors – and they were forced to sell their homes and businesses and to leave with little more than could be packed in a suitcase. When they returned, most had no place to stay and no jobs to be had. Hostility and discrimination toward them were high.


5. Lest we forget, it wasn’t just People of Color who were facing serious discrimination in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The “Red Scare” – fear that Russian communists were taking over our society from inside  - reached panic levels as Congress held almost 100 hearings, presumably designed to root out those who wanted to destroy America. Government workers, school teachers, movie actors and others in targeted groups were  “black listed.” As a result, tens of thousands of Americans thought to have communistic leanings lost jobs and occupations.

*  *  *

   So, okay, I should have started this essay by saying that for some people – particularly White, middle class people – the late ‘40s and early ‘50s were wonderful times to be alive and living in the U. S. A. Not so much for a large number of our fellow Americans. At the time, I was just a kid and didn’t know anything about any of this. But – even in those days before 24/7 news coverage – my folks must have known, and my relatives, and our neighbors. What did they think about it? I don’t know what my parents thought. They were regular voters, my dad wouldn’t cross any union picket line, and I seldom heard a word from them that could be considered discriminatory or biased. But there was a rule in our family, and in many middle class families, that we didn’t discuss religion and politics because they were such divisive subjects. So, how would anybody know how anybody else really felt? Did people say these were terrible thing to do to Americans? Did they say that, if the Government thought it was necessary, it must be all right? Were they happy to know it was happening? Or did they say, “I’m glad that doesn’t affect me?” Whatever they believed, it didn’t make much difference in what happened, or in the aftermath.

   I suspect I could have picked nearly any 10-year period in the history of European occupation of what has become the United States, and found similar acts of inhumanity to our fellow Americans. Most of us don’t know about most of them – partly just because we’re not an inquiring people, but mostly because knowing about them tarnishes our concocted idea of America – land of the free, and home of the brave. For reasons that vary from patriotism to shame to self-justification, we keep re-inventing what we have done and why we did it. We have convinced ourselves  over generations that we do not have any long-term prejudices, that everything we have done has been right and justified, and that there is nothing morally wrong with us as individuals or systemically wrong with the nation. That is wrong both morally and intellectually, and is a major stumbling block to doing things "right" the next time around.

  Our inability to “face the truth” is why I don’t have much faith that the current public turmoil over injustice will result in much long-term change. Like holding prayer meetings to “bring the town together” after massacres by firearms, personal or group therapy is no substitute for positive solutions to specific problems. We can march; we can take down statues; we can change team names; we can scrap offending commercials; and we can pass stronger laws about discrimination. We can work toward bringing our police forces back to their role as public helpers, rather than the military-type crime seekers many have become. We might even offer reparations to groups that have been wronged by our past actions. Any or all of these things might make you feel better, and might help make life for some Americans a little “nicer.” None of them address the real issues.

   There’s no hope for us being truly UNITED until we can admit – as individuals and as a nation – that, while we may be the greatest (or, one of the greatest) countries in the history of the world, we have done some horrible, horrible things. These are not hurts that can be cured with a little loving care; they are systemic wrongs that require major surgery. Making it even more difficult, it is us White people who are responsible for most of the hurts, and who most need to acknowledge them.

   I don’t think we can do it.  





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