Over the Hill

Let's talk about race

Special to The TribuneJuly 18, 2013 

Phil Dirkx

I assume you saw the TV coverage last week of the Florida trial of George Zimmerman for the shooting of Trayvon Martin. Many say Zimmerman was motivated by racism when he followed and confronted Martin.

So today let’s put racism on trial. Racism has defaced the spirit of America. Our Declaration of Independence says all men are equal, and have the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But, our Constitution originally accepted the enslavement of a large portion of our population, the African-American portion.

That constitutional mistake was corrected only after a half-million Americans were killed between 1861 and 1865 in our Civil War. But then came another 100 years of intimidation and suppression for millions of black Americans, including the lynching of thousands.

I’d like to believe that racism was milder in Paso Robles, my hometown. Local historian Virginia Peterson said Paso Robles’ first black residents arrived in a group from the southeast in 1887, two years before the city incorporated.

One example of Paso Robles’ racism is the story that a young African-American told me in the early 1960s. He wanted to rent an apartment he saw advertised in the paper. He telephoned the landlady. She told him to come right out.

But when she saw him she said she’d just rented it to someone else. He felt disappointed and humiliated.

Paso Robles’ racism was diminished, however, in 1980 when the city became the first place in this county to have a black elected official. Kenneth Parish was elected to the City Council. He served until May of 1983 when he moved away to take a new job.

I bet that most people feel racial stress at least occasionally. In 1955 I was assistant manager of a finance company in Redwood City. One day the manager and I went into a bar looking for a missing, past-due borrower. We were the only white people in the place. I felt uncomfortable and intimidated.

I also remember calling on an African-American woman at her home in East Palo Alto. She was two payments behind but her record was good, and we would have renewed her loan and advanced her more money. I asked if I could come inside to discuss her account.

She responded in no uncertain terms that we weren’t in Georgia and I wasn’t welcome. I had obviously done or said something that made her uncomfortable on a racial level.

Most of us usually don’t discuss our racial feelings, but maybe we should. It might help us understand ourselves and others better, if we could do it calmly.

Phil Dirkx has lived in Paso Robles for more than five decades, and his column is published weekly. Reach Dirkx at 238-2372 or phild2008@sbcglobal.net.

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