As one ages, one increasingly evaluates the events of one’s life. Not just one’s personal life, but the life of the larger world as well. This is about the life of the larger world.

Having grown up white in segregated Missouri, I have been aware since I was barely past toddler age that race is America’s central issue. I recall talking at age 5 or so with my big sisters (six and seven years older) about the injustices imposed on black folks.

Our city (Columbia) was not so extreme as the deep South. The Wabash Railroad depot didn’t have separate waiting rooms. White soldiers coming from Fort Leonard Wood on Missouri Transit buses didn’t sit only in the front. I don’t recall separate public restrooms.

But schools were segregated, and the Frederick A. Douglass School clearly got less attention from the school board than did white schools. Theaters were segregated. White people could attend any of five moviehouses, black people could attend only the Francis Theater on Fifth Street or sit in the balcony at any white theater that had a balcony.

On May 17, 1954, as I loaded up to run my newspaper route, I read the top story in the Columbia Daily Tribune about the U.S. Supreme Court holding school segregation unconstitutional. My barely 14-year-old mind thought the ruling was a huge step toward racial justice. And it was, hard as that may be to believe in this time of setting one against another, especially setting white against anyone who is “other.”

My 14-year-old mind thought all schools would be integrated soon and that when that happened, everything in America would follow suit. But Columbia’s schools stayed segregated for 12 years, and schools are still segregated in most parts of the country.

In May 1959, I learned that not all of America was like Missouri, that integration might go in a direction I hadn’t imagined. When I picked up my first paycheck from the Los Angeles Dodgers — I ushered at the LA Coliseum — the paymaster said, “Are you related to Charlie Neal?” Charlie Neal was the Dodgers’ second baseman, a black man from Longview, Texas, and no known relation. It had never occurred to me that a black and a white might be related.

It had clearly occurred to the segregationists, and during the civil rights movement they loudly predicted integration would lead to interracial marriage, even though Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had said, “I want to be the white man’s brother, not his brother-in-law.” The segregationists were right. Integration has brought interracial marriage.

A few stats. Today, 17 percent of married couples are interracial, up from 5 percent in 1967, when the Supreme Court invalidated state laws blocking interracial marriage. Among blacks, 18 percent marry into another race. Among whites, 11. The numbers are higher for Asians and Latinos, and 42 percent of interracial unions are Latino/white. The proportion of children who are of mixed race has risen to 10 percent from 1 percent 40 years ago. At least as important is that, the proportion of non-blacks opposing mixed marriage has fallen to 14 percent from 63 about 30 years ago.

To those stats I say, Right on, sisters and brothers. Dare I suggest that when we are fully intermingled, the American race may be the most beautiful in the world? I won’t live that long, but I believe I see it coming among our young people. If there is no hope in the young, then we are done.

Four of the past five years I have attended Christmas at Luther, a concert at Decorah, Iowa, the heart of Norwegian-American culture. Luther College is Decorah’s crown jewel, and if there is a typical student there, s/he is tall, white, blond.

At the 2014 concert, one would find among the 500 singers and 100 instrumentalists hardly a face that broke the stereotype. In 2018, the choirs included four or five African-American faces, a black soloist, kids who appeared to be Asian, Latino. Not many, but some. Elsewhere on campus, the presence of kids of color was more noticeable. In the ticket office, in the dining halls, in the bookstore. Some of those kids of color are going to marry some of those blonds. It’s an inevitable result of kids being together on campus.

A newspaper colleague once told me, “Sports is the only area where Americans demand excellence.” Got a jump shot? Play defense? Come, help make our team better. At games, I see the arms around one another during huddles, I see the helmets worn by black and white footballers bumped after one throws a touchdown to the other. Race may still show up in sports, perhaps in the trash talk that only players hear, but it is seldom overt.

Does this mean that everyone in the melting pot will look, think and act alike? I don’t believe that can happen, or should. Paul Gruchow in the book Grass Roots wrote, “If we imagine that whites are homogeneous, then we are free to magnify the differences between whites and the rest of humanity.”

So celebrate our Scottish, Norwegian, Jewish, Ghanaian heritage. When we get together with those who share our DNA, we can become hyphenated Americans for a while. I love Celtic concerts and highland games, and I dream of the auld sod when I attend them. After the swords have been danced, the cabers tossed, the pipes skirled, I am again and at base an American.

As my late friend Al Tracy put it, “There’s not enough talent that we can afford to leave anybody out.” He was referring to women serving as pastors, but his point applies to race as well. America is its best self when everyone has a crack at everything. Cream rises.

We will get through this dystopia. Maybe the era of Trump will prove to be the darkness just before the dawn. The kids at Luther College, the kids playing basketball and other sports in Maine and the lower 47 give me hope. One nation indivisible . . .

Bob Neal (Northern UK, 73.5 percent; Scandinavian, 19.4; Mideastern,3; Ashkenazi Jew,1.8; Levant, 1.2; Nigerian, 1.1) wishes you a season of hope, whatever your DNA.


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