After seeing the film “Hidden Figures,” my 9-year-old granddaughter Katie sent me an enthusiastic voice message, and then asked me a question that took me aback: “Did you ever see a Colored water fountain?”
I grew up in Virginia in the 1950s, so intellectually I know there were segregated water fountains in those days. But I could not actually remember seeing one. How could this be? I think the answer is that such things were such a normal part of the environment in the segregated south that they weren’t considered anything special. Segregation, racism, bigotry and bias were the norm, and one doesn’t take much notice of things that are normal and routine.
About 10 years ago, another film sparked a similar epiphany in me. “Remember the Titans” (2000) recounts the true story of an African-American football coach trying to integrate the team at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria Virginia in 1971. Watching this film, I was stunned and incredulous. I graduated from McLean High School, just a few miles from Alexandria, in 1965. Wasn’t McLean High School integrated by then, I asked myself?
After all, I started high school seven years after the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision (Brown vs. Board of Education) that required the desegregation of public schools in the United States. I knew all this intellectually. As a professor of political science, I knew my constitutional history.
While watching “Remember the Titans,” I racked my brain trying to think of African-Americans who must have been my high school classmates. I couldn’t think of one. I called my sister, who graduated from the same high school four years later. She thought there might have been one or two African-Americans when she was there. We finally resorted to our accumulated high school yearbooks, scanning for darker faces. I didn’t find a single one in any of my four yearbooks. My sister finally found one, a girl, in hers.
It finally occurred to me, 35 years after the fact, that I had attended an all-white, segregated high school. But I had not realized it at the time. White was normal, so what was there to notice? Segregation and racism was the norm, and therefore unexceptional and unmemorable.
In the aftermath of this stunning revelation, I began to read about the history of school desegregation, and learned about the campaign of “massive resistance” to the Brown vs. Board decision that was led by U.S. Senator Harry Byrd of Virginia. The state, and most of the schools in the state, simply refused to implement federal law, and this went on in some school districts for more than a decade after the Brown decision. This controversy had apparently been swirling around me when I was in high school, but I was oblivious to it. Too many other things going on in the world and my life: the Vietnam war, pimples, the Kennedy assassination, all-state marching band, the Cuban Missile Crisis, junior prom.
The philosopher Hannah Arendt coined the phrase “the banality of evil” in a 1963 book about Adolph Eichmann, a top administrator of the Nazi death camps. The phrase captures how easy it is for evil to become routine, even banal. The Holocaust may have been one of the most extreme and horrific examples of this, but we have seen it in this country too with the massacres of Native Americans; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II; the Jim Crow laws and segregation in the south; and with continuing manifestations of bigotry, racism, and intolerance, even coming from our top political leaders.
Perhaps the teenage me could be forgiven for not noticing the evil of segregation, and the underlying racism and prejudice, in my own environment. As adults, we have no such excuse.