In my tenth decade of life, I tend to spend much of my time looking backward.
Over the years, the enactment of civil rights legislation means that fewer of our institutions, both private and governmental, practice the overt racism and anti-Semitism that I witnessed — and experienced — in my younger days. I am reminded of Martin Luther King's conviction that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
However, while systemic discrimination has declined, it has become apparent in recent years that racism and anti-Semitism among individuals are still rife in this country. Increasingly, they are openly, even violently, expressed. I wonder whether young people, who are more likely to look forward in time, believe our moral universe is bending toward justice.
As I listened to speeches last Veterans Day — my 73rd since my discharge from the Army following World War II — I couldn't help but contrast the laudatory prose with my memories. The army I served in had its share of bigots, and more attention should have been paid to these demoralizing influences. Perhaps it’s no surprise that it wasn’t, given that the army itself was segregated.
I want to stress that even those who demeaned their fellow GIs on the basis of skin color or religion often displayed enormous courage during combat. Bigots who rest in military cemeteries throughout the world are indistinguishable from their comrades-in-arms — even those of different skin color or religion — who also gave their lives.
Racism and anti-Semitism flourished in the Army; it was everywhere. My evidence for this is anecdotal, but it is as clear to me as if the incidents happened yesterday. Prejudice was as much a part of Army life as our uniforms.
I remember listening to a group of GIs demeaning African Americans. At one point, I approached and said that if I were black (in 1944, I probably said “Negro”), I would be proud of it. I remember verbatim the hostile response my statement elicited: “If there’s anything worse than a n---r,” I was told, “It’s a n---r lovin’ white man.” If this were a fictional account, I would probably add that I was brave enough and capable enough to continue arguing the point; but I was neither. As a firm believer in the adage that discretion is the better part of valor, I chose discretion and withdrew from the arena, unbloodied but bowed.
I remember being surprised by the racist comments when I was sent to the Philippines, in 1945. Filipinos were often referred to disparagingly as “Flips,” usually with an alliterative gerund before the word. I thought how ironic it was that we were supposed to be fighting for democracy, but here we were exporting racism.
I remember being stationed in Detroit when President Roosevelt died. I was in a rec room. One GI greeted the announcement with the statement that Roosevelt’s real name was Rosenfeld, and that he was a “f---ing Jew.” No GI present at the time supported that statement, but no one opposed it either. I remained discreet.
My intention in putting these recollections on paper is not to demean the Army; I was a part of it. In fact, in the context of the military, circumstances are much improved. The Army is no longer segregated, and I believe that much of the overt racism and anti-Semitism I encountered would not be tolerated today. But the country is better served when it sees itself warts and all. This brings me to today and the fears of those looking forward in time.
Houses of worship, whether a church in Charleston or a synagogue in Pittsburgh, are no longer safe havens.
This month in Charlottesville, Va., a self-described white supremacist was sentenced to life in prison for driving his car into a group of counter-protesters last year, killing a woman. And instances of African American citizens being killed at the hands of police officers are legion: Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, Philando Castile, Walter Scott and so on.
Eventually, I believe the arc of individuals will bend, too, through protest, education and experience. But today, it indeed seems a long time coming.
Harry Finkelstein is a retired freelance writer living in Baltimore. His email is email@example.com.