By MICHAEL WINERIP
Published: January 19, 2013
Many things about the men and women of the Greatest Generation did indeed make them great — surviving the Depression, fighting around the world and sacrificing at home to win World War II. But there was nothing the least bit great about another hallmark of that generation — racism, sexism and homophobia.
On that front, the boomers are the greatest generation. The gains in society made by blacks, women and gays in our lifetime are extraordinary, unprecedented in this country’s history, I would argue.
Might we be the Fairest Generation?
Probably not, given the worsening economic inequities of our time.
But the Fairer Generation? Yes, I think so.
Until I was 13, segregation was legal. By the time I was 31, Martin Luther King’s birthday was a federal holiday.
I can think of four particularly important experiences in my life that have helped me, as a white man, better understand race in America.
The first was learning what it felt like to be a minority.
I grew up Jewish during the 1960s in a primarily Irish and Italian working-class suburb of Boston. Rarely was I allowed to forget that. This was partly because I was a curiosity, partly ignorance and partly prejudice.
To this day, when someone says to me: “Winerip? What kind of name is that?,” I feel a little chill inside. Growing up it often meant, “We know who you are.”
When I was in junior high, I hung out with six boys in the neighborhood. I was the brain and another boy — who’d eventually go to prison for assaulting a cop — was the muscle. The two of us were the leaders, mostly because we were oldest, and once in a while he had to remind the rest that he was the top leader. He’d goad me with some anti-Semitic slur (“Hebe” was a big one) and then I’d have to hit him. Within seconds, he had me on the ground and was punching me out.
He could have seriously hurt me, but never did.
He pulled his punches, I think because he liked me. And I liked him.
So, second lesson: prejudice is complicated.
The next came when I was in my mid-20s and living in Hazard, Ky., as the Appalachian bureau chief for The Courier-Journal, the newspaper in Louisville. There, for the first time in my life, I saw pervasive poverty that was white. Growing up in the Northeast, it was almost always black and, at that time, often in high-rise public housing with long, dark hallways that smelled of urine.
In Eastern Kentucky I’d go up hollows, and the farther I drove, the worse the poverty, until at the top, there could be shacks without plumbing, parents on welfare and children — often large numbers of them — without warm clothes.
That poverty didn’t smell of urine, it smelled of burning coal and garbage dumped in mountain streams.
Third lesson learned: the dysfunction of poverty is not about race, it is about class.
The fourth came about a decade ago when I was helping lead a big project at the paper about race, with my editor Gerald Boyd, who was black (he has since died).
Week after week we would have meetings about the 15 stories the reporters were working on, discussing what things that they were observing were about race and what were about other issues.
For my piece, I spent months with a police plainclothes unit in Harlem. The officers who went undercover — the most risky job — were usually black or Latino. Was that racial? Or was it because the neighborhood was mainly black and Latino and the undercovers needed to blend? When a group of young black men standing on a corner was targeted for a bust, was that racial profiling? Or was it playing the odds based on experience at the corner of 142nd Street and Broadway?
After months of discussing these kinds of questions with the other reporters and editors, I turned to Gerald one night and said something like, “I’m getting sick of spending day after day trying to figure out what’s race and what’s not — it’s exhausting.”
“Exactly,” he said. “Now you’re beginning to get it.”
Our generation was the first to get it in large numbers, and each succeeding generation has done better.
To me, having an African-American elected president in my lifetime seems a miracle. To the millennials, my children’s generation, he was one of two candidates to choose from the first time they were eligible to vote for president.
I grew up in a community where racial prejudice was so widespread, whites wouldn’t sell their homes to blacks.
My wife and I have picked a racially diverse community to raise our children. As a result, they have many more black and Latino friends than I did at their age.
For me, Martin Luther King Day is a new holiday; in their lives it has always been one.
For me, it has great historical significance.
For them, it’s a three-day weekend, no different than Washington’s birthday or Columbus Day.