A group of black elementary schoolchildren had gathered to hear me talk about being a reporter when one of them suddenly stood up and asked, "What about racism? Is there racism in Washington?" The questioner, a boy of only 12, added one last thought with a seriousness usually reserved for inquiries about how to make it in the NBA. "And if so, how do you deal with it?"
All eyes were glued to me. As I struggled to reply, a lump grew in my throat.
I had fielded questions from the sixth grade students about the workings of government in Washington and had delighted in answering questions like, "Have you ever seen the president?" and "Do you know Thurgood Marshall?"
The kids had been so excited, so proud that one of their "home folk" had made it to Washington, that I didn't want to burst their bubble with talk of racism. But it soon became obvious that the only bubble that was going to burst was my own.
"White kids call us names like nigger and coon," said one girl. "Do they say that in Washington?" I told her no, but added with a smile, "at least not to our faces." Another student said that she had been playing with a white friend when the friend's mother saw her and told her daughter to come into the house. Her friend never spoke to her again, she said. Others recounted how their parents would congregate after a workday and talk about how the "white folk keep black people down."
Frankly, I was shocked.
Race relations, a matter supposedly of declining significance, according to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, was a matter of overwhelming concern among these children. It was as if I had been thrown into a time warp with the concerns of blacks in the 1950s now surfacing again in the 1980s.
The students raised questions about reports they had heard about the Aryan nation and the rise of white supremacist groups and racial violence. Some of them were frightened by this talk while others were fermenting their own seeds of hatred.
It was sad to see this weigh so heavily on such young minds. Surely they should have better things to think and talk about.
"I want to go to Washington when I graduate from college so I can work for the president," said one girl.
"Do you think a black will ever be president?" another student asked.
In their civics classes the students said they had learned how the Supreme Court protected people's rights. How the legislature formed the basis for democracy and how the president represented everybody, even if everybody didn't vote for him. Many were interested in being a part of it, if what they had heard was true.
Suddenly, I found myself telling them that I wasn't sure that it was true, that the United States was moving backward socially with rulings from the civil rights commission that claimed racial discrimination no longer existed. I also noted that, to me, U.S. support of South Africa was essentially a racist gesture.
The fact of the matter was that life here for blacks is not that much different in Washington. Indeed, two studies of economic discrimination in both areas show that blacks fare slightly better in Louisiana than they do in the Washington area, which is a rap against Washington worse than many could imagine.
The reality was that the girl who wanted to work for the president would probably have no chance of doing so unless she applied for a job as an assistant to an assistant in minority affairs. As for the aspirations of the boy who wanted to be president, Jesse Jackson's campaign had demonstrated that he could indeed run. But winning would be almost impossible.