“Racial Policy”

By Robert Arvay

When I was very young, pre-school, I did something that haunts me to this day.

I joined with some other white kids in tossing the “N” word at two black men who worked on a garbage truck.

This was in the Deep South, racially segregated, where “White Only” signs were commonplace.

What haunts me is that the two men had spoken in a very kind manner toward us, but when they heard us taunt them, their facial expressions became crestfallen, sad, and disappointed.

I immediately felt sorry that I had uttered the word. Without having to be told, I immediately discovered how deeply hurtful such words could be. I wanted to apologize, but at that age, I did not have those kinds of social skills. So, I just stood there, knowing that I had hurt two innocent people, for no reason. This was nearly sixty years ago, yet I have never forgotten it.

When I was thirteen years old, my father was offered a well-paying job up North, in New England (Connecticut), and so we moved there. In those days, this was not unlike moving to a different country. The cultures were in stark contrast to each other. In the South, the pace was slow; men tipped their hats to ladies, said “Howdy” to total strangers and posted “White Only” signs at water fountains. I could list a hundred differences.

Up North, things were reversed. People seemed coldly indifferent to those whom they passed on the street. To say “Howdy” was to invite suspicion (What are you up to?). The pace of life was fast and furious. People even spoke too fast for me to keep up with!

The schools up North were racially integrated. On my first day in school, there was a tall black kid, a street tough, and everyone seemed mildly afraid of him. He came to my desk, towering over me, and sternly said (I’m paraphrasing from memory here),

“You from down south.”

“Yes,” I replied.

“They don’t let colored kids in your class?” he asked.


“Why not?” asked my classmate.

I said, “because, they’re prejudiced against colored people.” 

He paused, thought for a moment, and then said, “I like that. You just said it like it is. You didn’t try to make excuses or nothin’, you didn’t even hesitate.” After that, even though we had nothing in common, he never let any of the bigger kids pick on me. My naiveté had come in handy.

He paused, thought for a moment, and then said, “I like that. You just said it like it is. You didn’t try to make excuses or nothin’, you didn’t even hesitate.” After that, even though we had nothing in common, he never let any of the bigger kids pick on me. My naiveté had come in handy.

In my home town, Plant City, Florida, there were the proverbial two sides of the railroad tracks. The Negroes (which we politely called them) lived on one side, whites on the other. The city built some housing for some of the blacks; I surmise the funds came from federal money. The homes were singles and duplexes, which were clean and well-kept. This was in a time when some black families lived in actual sheds. (So did some poor white people.)

However, in New England, there were high rise housing projects. Within weeks of moving families into them, the apartment complexes looked almost like war zones. Windows were broken, the parking lots were heaps of litter, and violent crime was rampant. Whites blamed the problems on race, but I could see that there was something very different between northern and southern black people. It was not the race; it was the culture. It was the way the housing projects were managed, or mismanaged.

I served twenty years in a racially-integrated military, where, despite several attempts at quota systems, the eventual outcome was that one could either hack it or not. Racially-selected promotions soon became a farce, as everyone knew who the racial selectees were. It was obvious, but at the same time, people who had been promoted on merit were respected without regard for their color.

These experiences, among others, shaped my attitudes about race. I am a social conservative, and as such, I believe that race should be ignored as a factor in school admissions, hiring, and yes, even in housing. At the same time, I also recognize that while people should be free to express their opinions – yes, even their racial prejudices –I understand that racial discrimination is a pernicious social evil that destroys lives, and weakens the republic. How does one deal with such ambiguity in supporting or opposing specific social policies and laws? Where does one draw the line?

I am not wise enough to say. However, whenever I am asked for an opinion on such matters, I always begin with a vital reference point. And for me, that reference point is centered around two garbage men in Plant City.

One thought on ““Racial Policy”

  1. Very interesting Robert that you still remember your comments after all these years. Race and Race relations are very powerful impacts on our daily lives. While I wasn't in the Military I grew up as a Military Brat and we lived in Military housing until I was a teenager. My experience was that since we were integrated we actually had very few problems especially as youngsters. It was only when we reached our High School years and were exposed to ingrained "adult" prejudices did we pull away from our black friends and begin to "voluntarily" separate ourselves. Sad but true !!

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