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‘All men are created equal’ must be more than just words

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POSTED January 18, 2010 1:21 a.m.

prejudice • n 1. preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience; unjust behavior formed on such a basis.

By definition we all have prejudices to some degree. It’s human nature to view the unknown with trepidation.

At the same, too many of us dismiss Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a time to simply reflect on the struggle of Blacks to secure civil rights that they are entitled to not just as American citizens but as human beings. King’s message made it clear that no one can enjoy freedom if it is denied another class of people regardless of how one may define that class. We as individuals can never truly be free until all are free and have access to basic opportunities needed for the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

Skin color prejudice is perhaps the most pervasive. You can hide your religion, your ethnic culture, your political affiliation, and even your sexual orientation. There is no escaping your skin and the prejudices it may trigger.

I was fortunate having a cool cousin who was my best friend while I was growing up. Gail Lanier was my age and I’d venture to say a lot smarter than I ever thought of being. She lived in Yuba City but during the summer she’d spend weeks at a time with us in Lincoln until she was about 14.

My mom always made it a point to take Gail clothes shopping shortly after she arrived to stay with us the first time each summer. Her parents weren’t exactly well off. Her father was a disabled Korean War veteran and her mother – my mom’s sister – worked as a practical nurse until she sustained a back injury.  They were tight with the dollar and bought everything they could include clothes at a second-hand stores and yard sales.

Mom didn’t think it would be right that people – including strangers on the street - would make comments about Gail’s clothing.

It didn’t dawn on me until years later that people didn’t make remarks about other kids dressed in dingy, well-worn clothes. But then again, none of the other people back in Lincoln when I was growing up were Black either.

Gail was a Korean War era child whose natural father was a Black American GI who got her mother - a Filipino woman - pregnant while stationed in The Philippines.

I never looked upon her as Black. I knew her as an extremely bright, good-humored, and outgoing person.

In high school, I learned that some folks in other communities had a rather low opinion of Lincoln where I grew up in Placer County. They equated it with white trash because it was a factory town where after 135 years they still produce clay building products with the biggest chunk now being sewer pipe. Those views were compounded by the fact there were a lot of Hispanics in Manteca. Back in 1974, 28 percent of the city’s 3,900 residents at the time had Spanish surnames. They weren’t necessarily Latino as they may have married someone with a Spanish surname.

It was common place before and after games for kids at certain schools in the valley and foothills to use every derogatory name you can utter about Mexicans and toss them at Lincoln teams. It was comical in a way as half of the kids they directed them at where fifth generations Americans and couldn’t even converse in Spanish. Nor did it matter that the other half were on their way – as the years would bear out – to becoming teachers, lawyers, businessmen, and police officers to name a few occupations.

It kind of rolled off your back since at the time I had teachers that were Hispanic, businessmen in the community were Hispanic, some of our closest family friends were Hispanic, I worked with Hispanics at my mom’s drive-in frosty, and the police chief and mayor were Hispanic.

It wasn’t until I was 19 and elected to the Western Placer Unified School District board that I understood how some believe others should have their rights curtailed or restricted due to their skin tone.

A parent – who had recently moved to the Lincoln foothills from Orange County – was irked about a teacher at Glen Edwards School. As we stood in front of the campus he kept referring to “those people.” I didn’t get the drift until he pointed across the street at Nick Martinez who was just arriving home from his job at McClellan Air Force Base.

The parent then went on about “those people” on welfare and driving nice cars, and living in houses with swimming pools. I then realized what he meant by “those people” since the teacher he was complaining about was also Hispanic.

Mr. Martinez, I informed him, was a sixth generation Californian who served in World War II. His father served in World War I. He was a solid citizen who raised a family while both he and his wife worked to buy what they had.

None of that mattered to the irate parent, though, because Mr. Martinez – and his son’s teacher – didn’t share his skin tone.

Until the day we are all color blind none of us will truly be free.

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