Connecting the past with the present

February 28, 2020

“…racism is one of those things that fades and you think it's getting better, and then it rears its head.”

The summer after I graduated from high school, I delivered Coca-Cola, and it was the biggest route in the city. We took out two trucks; one had a white driver, and the other was a black helper, but he drove a truck. His name was Lee Christor. And so it's the three of us working five days a week, from six in the morning until five in the afternoon. And Lee and I got along really well, but I can remember when we delivered Cokes to a diner or something like that, and we would take a break, Roy who was the white driver and was a sales guy, we'd go into the diner of the cafe, and we could sit, you know, on the stools at the counter.

And I asked Roy, it's like, 'Where's Lee?' It's like, 'well, he can't come in here.' It's like, 'Well, why not?' And he said, 'Well, he prefers to be with his own people.' And I thought, 'Okay,' you know, I sort of took his word for it that that was the case. And then it's like, I'm slow, but it occurred to me, like, 'No, he's not allowed to come in here with the white people. He's got to stay in the back with the blacks.'

I would say, you know, my parents are now deceased, so it's not that big of a deal. But I'd say they were not, you know, openly racist. But when I look back at the things they said, the attitudes that they had, you know, 'The blacks need to stay in their place, they shouldn't be uppity.' You know, 'They have fine schools, they should stay to their own people.' We would argue that, and we would argue affirmative action and whether or not you needed to help blacks to overcome - to help them overcome the history and everything that that they had experienced in the past for generations. Didn't they need a helping hand at this point? And my parents were the kind to say, 'No, anybody can make it if they pull themselves up by the bootstraps. They go to schools,' you know, 'Look at this person or that person, you know, they're a good black, they've shown that they can overcome that. And I don't know why they all can't.'

But I think when you look around the country today, those attitudes, they're embedded, and they're embedded all over the country. I mean, I think, you know, racism is one of those things that fades and you think it's getting better, and then it rears its head. And I think in the era that we're in right now, the Trump era, you know, the racial divides, I think they're as scary as they ever were. Now, you know, when I was growing up in the late 60s, there were racial riots, there were the Black Panthers. There were gunfights in the street, there were parts of Watts and different areas of big cities that were just being burned down with racial protests and that kind of thing. Then it sort of went away for a while, but it never fully goes away.

But I know that there have been times in the South, because I've gone back there over the years for visits, and I've still got some family down there, where you're the only white person in a restaurant. You're the only white person in a 7-11 You're the only white person at the gas station in this part of town. You feel weird. I don't necessarily feel threatened, but you just feel very self-conscious. You feel very aware of your whiteness, and the way you walk, and your language and the way you talk. When I'd work summers, and I'd be with the three or four black guys in the crew, because I felt like I associated with them okay, you know, you just feel really white.

And so I just, I sort of extrapolate to if you're black, and 99 percent of the other people are white when you're sitting in the dining hall, you know, it's like, no wonder you would choose then to sit with the two or three blacks that you know, where you feel like you've got more in common, or, you know, the conversations just feel more comfortable to you.

About the interviewer

John (Jack) Lyons is a member of the Class of 2021 at the University of Notre Dame. He majors in theology and is a member of the John W. Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics, and Democracy.

Kerry Temple

Kerry Temple is the editor of Notre Dame Magazine. He grew up in Shreveport, LA and attended the University of Notre Dame, graduating in 1974. He has a master's degree in journalism from Louisiana State University.