Was Mom a Little Bit Racist? Am I?

In 1972, Michigan Judge Stephen Roth ruled in Bradley v. Millikin that the requirement to integrate the Detroit Public Schools could not be achieved within the geographical limits of the city. He ordered that the remedy should be a program of busing between inner city and suburban schools. Suburbia erupted with rage: protests, effigy hangings, bumper stickers proclaiming “Judge Roth is a Child Molester,” yellow “This Family will not be bused” signs in windows.

The case was appealed, of course. The U.S. Sixth Circuit Court twice supported the ruling. But on July 25, 1974, the Supreme Court reversed the decision, declaring in Millikin v. Bradley that suburban districts could not be compelled to aid in the desegregation of inner-city schools. There would be no busing in the Detroit suburbs.

A week later, on August 1, my mother wrote about the decision in her column that usually dealt with the lighthearted events of family life:

That split decision recently in the highest court in the land left me with pretty mixed-up emotions that must be shared by many – despite the elation generally expressed.

To explain them, I go back a little, to the integration-by-busing ruling by the late Judge Stephen Roth and the realization that the Pontiac situation I had discussed with the girls could indeed happen to us. We talked about it again then, and agreed that while we would not really favor their having to leave familiar schools, we could understand the reasons and would follow court rulings. But of course I found myself in the minority in these thoughts, and I guess they did too.

It was just that I couldn’t get past the words of the judge that “actions and inactions” had brought about a true injustice. I could feel very sure that no action of mine ever had contributed but how about some inaction?

Feelings grew so intense and polarization was so marked that I became honestly fearful of the real trouble should school busing be ordered. Time went on. The courts discussed busing in their legal moves and people discuss other things. You could almost get lulled into believing the whole thing would go away.

Then matters in the background pushed to the fore again with the death of Earl Warren and the review of the historic march toward school integration. And the “this family will not be bused” signs in yellow that stayed in windows. The day of decision arrived and a changed court halted the march of the last 20 years.

I wish I could say I was totally displeased. What I felt, I have to admit, was relief that my daughters don’t have to do the paying for my inaction. I also wish I could know a certainty about what happens to THEIR daughters.

I read this 40 years later, and I, too, feel mixed emotions. I am proud of my mother for her courage in writing. I am gratified that I was raised by parents who understood the importance of civil rights and the need for systemic responses to inequity. But I cringe a bit at Mom’s admitted ambivalence – her relief that this unjust decision meant that her daughters would stay in their comfortable suburban school.

Was mom racist? Even a little?

Forty years later, there has been progress in race relations. There is less institutional discrimination and more opportunity. We have a black president. So we’re okay now, right? No, we’re not okay. There are still glaring black and white disparities in education, income, life expectancy, and incarceration rates.

And forty years later, the protests are not in suburban Detroit, but in Ferguson, Missouri. A young unarmed black man has been shot by a white police officer. There are marches for justice on Ferguson streets. Twitter is awash with images and on-the-street reports. The mainstream media buzzes with analysis.

And like my mother 40 years ago, I watch the events from a safe distance, mediated by my upper middle class neighborhood and my electronic screens. My beliefs, attitudes, and emotions are firmly in line with the protestors in Ferguson. I feel anger. I chafe at the militarized tactics of police. I want justice for Michael Brown.

But I also wonder if I harbor any of the ambivalence that my mother was brave enough to express. My Facebook feed is not as white as my high school yearbook, but it’s still pretty darn white. When my daughter was in public school, we chose to live in a mostly-white district with a better school system. I know I’ll do everything I can to help any future grandchildren have similar educational opportunities.

Am I racist? Even a little?

I don’t think so, but recent research on bias suggests that it’s hard to know, and it comes down to that issue of “action and inaction” that my mother highlighted. As Nicholas Kristof argues, much racism today isn’t about blatant discrimination. It’s about fewer callbacks from employees to a resume with a “black” name. It’s about differential suspension rates for black students. It’s about doctors giving less pain medication to people of color.

I hope that were I a participant in these studies of hidden bias that I would be as likely to hire a black woman as I would a white woman. I hope that my trigger finger wouldn’t be quicker for a black target than a white one. But I remember similar thoughts when I first learned about the Milgram Studies in college. I wouldn’t shock another human being just because a man in a white lab coat told me to. Or would I?

So what do I do? How do I push against being even a little bit racist?

I remember history, and remind myself that the past matters a great deal in understanding our current society, institutions, and personal attitudes. Some of the disparities in Ferguson were created by the white flight encouraged by court decisions such Millikin v. Bradley. Context matters.

I practice empathy, but know that my empathy is imperfect. I cannot fully know another’s experience, but I can learn what I can and appreciate that those experiences shape current perceptions and actions in powerful ways.

I can acknowledge my own privilege. I didn’t come to be where I am solely – or even primarily – because of my intelligence or effort. I may be smart and I may work hard, but I’ve benefited throughout my life – starting with that suburban Detroit school system – from the perks that come with my skin color.

And I speak and act whenever possible, in spite of my discomfort. I don’t like conflict, and even writing something like this blog post is difficult for me. But I can’t just watch the Facebook and Twitter feeds go by – I need to step in to say and do things, as well, just as Mom did 40 years ago.


  1. Fantastic post Kathy. This is an issue I have thought about a lot lately. Thanks for articulating your, my and many other peoples’ concerns.

  2. Kathy, I cry reading this for so many reasons I can’t even articulate. I am moved by this connection to your mom and her words across a generation. I am moved and saddened by the racism that continues to plague our country. And I know that I too struggled with so many of the thoughts you have articulated so well here.
    thank you!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s