There was a time when I believed, almost as an article of faith, that with the passage of time, America would age out of racism. What in the world was I thinking?
But that is what I told myself in the fall of 1954 — five months after the Supreme Court’s school desegregation decision — when I learned that students attending then-all-white Eastern, Anacostia and McKinley Technical high schools, and several white junior high schools in the District, had staged walkouts to protest the assignment of black kids to their schools. I was enrolled at then-all-black Dunbar High School at the time.
I really believed that racial integration was a step toward the goal of full equality and that, as the months wore on, those who walked out would shed their fear and anger. Instead, they and their families devoted the time remaining before the black students arrived to finding a means to flee the city.
Still I dreamed.
When, in 1956, students and adults shouted racial epithets and threw rotten eggs and rocks at a young black woman named Autherine Lucy who tried to enter the University of Alabama to obtain a degree in library science, I consoled myself with the thought that the hurlers of eggs and epithets would age out of the picture. Even when the University of Alabama expelled Lucy, under the guise of ensuring her personal safety, I thought those elders would one day be off the scene.
The same thought was in my head in the fall of 1957, when Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus called the National Guard to surround Central High School in Little Rock to prevent nine African American students from attending the all-white school, declaring “blood will run in the streets” if black students attempted to enter.
One day, oh one fine day, I believed, it’s gonna be over because one day, folks such as Orval Faubus are gonna be dead and gone.
But they were still around years later when, in the summer of 1964, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman, two white New Yorkers, and James Chaney, a black Mississippian, were in Mississippi helping to register voters. Schwerner, Goodman and Chaney disappeared on their way back from investigating the burning of an African American church by the Ku Klux Klan. Their bodies were later discovered buried in an earthen dam near Philadelphia, Miss.
Through it all, I clung firmly to the belief that because those white men and women hellbent on making life miserable for people unlike themselves were getting up in age, they would soon die out and be replaced by a younger, more broad-minded, racially tolerant generation of white Americans. Unlike many of their elders, these young people would be unencumbered by ingrained racist ideas, I said to myself.
What a fool was I. Bigotry doesn’t age out.
Evidence of that smacks us in the face.
Dylann Roof, the white supremacist who shot and killed nine black churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., in 2015, including the pastor and a state senator, was 21 at the time.
Holden Matthews, charged with burning three historically black churches in Louisiana a week before Easter, was 21 .
John Earnest, accused of a shooting that killed one and injured three at a synagogue in Poway, Calif., a few weeks after launching an arson attack at a San Diego County mosque, was 19 .
The man charged with the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh that left 11 dead was no septuagenarian; Robert Bowers was 46 .
Then there are the two ninth-grade students at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda who posted an image of themselves in blackface on social media and used the n-word as they described the photo. They were driven by the same racial animus that caused students to walk out of Eastern, Anacostia and McKinley Tech high schools 65 years ago.
Bigotry is a disease of the mind — a poisonous infection unbounded by age, time or space. It is transmissible, capable of being passed down from elders to child, from community to community, from racial and religious kin to racial and religious kin.
The newly appointed archbishop of Washington, Wilton Daniel Gregory, has called racism “a grave moral disease whose recurrence, aggressiveness and persistence should frighten every one of us.”
What’s striking about today’s disease, Gregory wrote in a December 2016 article carried by the Catholic News Service, is that it “may seem to have been brought under control”; that it was on the wane.
Presciently, Gregory wrote, “We have returned to a moment in our nation’s history when racist feelings and sentiments have been condoned as acceptable to express publicly and publish openly.”
The response he called for would reflect the sentiment of my youth: to “disavow any vestige of racism and hatred of other people because of race, religion, legal status or gender.”
Eradicating and inoculating us from this disease is our hope and never-ending challenge — for each of us. For certain, hate won’t outgrow itself.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.