A vigil is held for Richard Collins III at Bowie State University. He was stabbed to death at the University of Maryland campus this past weekend and was due to graduate from Bowie State this week. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
There were moments when someone would say something ugly — a racist epithet, an ethnic slur — and we would all shake our heads in disgust and someone would offer, in a way consoling, these words of advice and promise: "Wait until the old bigots die off. It's going to take time. But it gets better with each generation."
I might have been with my brothers, or college classmates, or fellow reporters. We might have been responding to something we had just heard, perhaps news of a hate crime or some other form of racism.
Back in Boston, it might have been during the tense days of protest over court-ordered school desegregation.
Or later, in Baltimore, we might have been responding to the racist utterances of a politician who railed against poor, black families relocating from the city projects to modest rental homes in the suburbs.
A couple of decades ago, the owner of a country club made news after inadvertently leaving his foul declarations on the answering machine of a black customer.
Almost every time, I heard that assurance: "This is a generational thing. When the racists die off, things will be much better."
It made sense because the offenders were usually older than us: a friend's father who openly displayed hostility and suspicion toward every black man he met; a college groundskeeper who spoke to his black workers as if he owned them; a white politician who worried that the birth rate for black Baltimoreans surpassed that of whites; a veteran of World War II who hated the Japanese — and all other Asians, for that matter.
The "greatest generation" wasn't exactly great when it came to equality. It took long marches and bloody martyrdom, a century after the Civil War, for the country to live up to its pledge of equality and justice for all.
Most of my fellow baby boomers were determined not to become their parents.
So we rejected racist attitudes and assured ourselves that, if big and sustaining change could not occur in one generation, certainly it would happen in two or three. Once enlightenment occurred, nothing could stop it from spreading, and one day our children, immersed in diversity, would reach the promised land.
Of course, this is mainly a white view of things, driven by wishful thinking — the belief that, as time goes by and people become more educated, society naturally progresses, even on the hot tin roof of race. It explains why, for years, the Gallup organization showed a steady increase in the number of Americans who believed race relations were getting better.
But a couple of years ago, after the shootings of unarmed black men by police and ensuing protests, that trend stopped. Gallup's chart showed a downward movement, with more than a third of Americans saying they were worried "a great deal" about race relations, more than at any time over the previous 15 years.
The Pew Research Center uncovered profound differences between black and white adults in their views on race: "Blacks, far more than whites, say black people are treated unfairly across different realms of life, from dealing with the police to applying for a loan or mortgage. And, for many blacks, racial equality remains an elusive goal."
Whites are far more optimistic about progress toward equality, and I suspect it's due to that faith in a generational change among millennials.
But that idea does not hold up, according to research by Sean McElwee for Demos, a public policy organization focused on equality. "Age," McElwee concluded, "has little effect on the likelihood that whites hold racially biased feelings about blacks. ... Waiting for old whites to die out won't solve the problem, as these attitudes are equally prevalent among youth."
So we come to the story of these two young men on the College Park campus of the University of Maryland early Saturday morning — one black and 23, the other white and 22; one headed honorably to graduation from Bowie State University, then to the Army as a second lieutenant; the other, enrolled at College Park and, according to police, a member of an online white supremacist group.
The latter, Sean Urbanski, is charged with fatally stabbing the black student, Richard Collins III. The FBI is looking into the possibility that Collins' murder was a hate crime.
On top of this horror came news from Anne Arundel County, Urbanski's home, that other young men, at least one of them a high school classmate of the suspect, allegedly joined in crudely cheering Urbanski's action on a sick social media post. The high school chum, Welby Burgone, was suspended from his job as an employee of the county police.
This story is so depressing on so many levels, and one is how it confirms the research, what we should have known all along: Conquering hate and racism takes work, education, the embrace of diversity, determined enlightenment. It doesn't just happen with the passing of time.