USA Today, February 21, 2007

    Racism: What do we tell the kids?

    By Bruce Kluger

    Forty-five years ago this spring, my brothers and I
    (ages 5, 6, 7 and 9) went to a Saturday afternoon
    showing of Pinocchio at the Uptown Theater in
    suburban Baltimore. Our mom had errands to run,
    so she sent us with our babysitter, Elizabeth.

    Outside the theater, we noticed that Elizabeth was
    engaged in a hushed conversation with the woman
    in the box office. Apparently, she was having
    trouble buying our tickets. "But I'm the babysitter,"
    Elizabeth said coolly. "I have to stay with them."

    After a bit more whispering, we were admitted to the theater and seated as a group
    in the glassed-in balcony. My brothers and I had never sat up high before, and we
    were enchanted by it all. What we didn't know was that we had no choice. Elizabeth
    was black and not permitted in the lower seats.

    When I tell my daughters (Audrey, 8, and Bridgette, 11) this story, they look at me
    wide-eyed, as if I'm concocting some wild fiction. To them, skin color has always
    been a non-issue, as inconsequential in their personal relationships as hair color,
    eye color or even the color of a blouse.

    Audrey's first "boyfriend" in pre-school was a handsome little man named Mekahel,
    a black child with an infectious smile and boundless energy. The only time Audrey
    and Mekahel ever discussed color was over crayons.

    Bridgette's godfather Guy, meanwhile, is also black, a trait she finds far less
    interesting than his computer wizardry or the fact that he was the first person she
    ever "danced" withat a wedding, when she was just 4 weeks old.

    To my daughters and their friends, the days of America's apartheid are sepia-
    tinted, blurry, a giant chapter of our national story that, once shouted from pulpits in
    Birmingham and Memphis, has now been compacted for easy listening. Sure,
    they're taught about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks maybe once a year in
    school; and perhaps they'll casually glimpse some boring documentary their
    parents are watching in the den.

    But for the most part, kids of any generation tend to see the past as the pastand,
    besides, a new episode of American Idol is on tonight.

    So as we celebrate Black History Month, I wonder: What kind of responsibility do
    parents have in educating our children about the sad legacy of racism that has run
    through our nation's life like a persistent electrical current? Do we bequeath that
    shame to our kids out of a sense of obligation, charging them with the task of
    carrying the long, hard fight of our troubled heritage into a new era? Or do we
    quietly give thanks for their blissful naivetétheir lucky late-century birthand
    hope that the deeper sense of fairness that is already evident in their new
    generation may take root in America's future? Do we leave well enough alone?

    To be sure, our country is experiencing a transformation that would have been
    unimaginable half a century ago.

    Our last two Secretaries of State have been African-American (likewise, both 2007
    Super Bowl head coaches); our most talked-about presidential candidate is black;
    people of color populate executive suites and statehouses across the country in
    increasing numbers. And the only conversation about race that seems to interest
    Major League Baseball anymore is the one about the pennant.

    Yet just because America's more notorious racial injustices are thankfully behind
    usthe segregated lunch counters, the unconscionable lynchings, the ignominious
    Jim Crow lawsthick capillaries of discrimination continue to pulse beneath our
    national skin. These lingering vestiges of that old-time racism are, in many ways,
    just as insidious as those we thought we'd thrown off with the great Civil Rights acts
    of the '60s, if only because they are more cleverly cloaked from view.

    Blacks continue to be shut out of polling places because of dubious technicalities.
    Families of color continue to carry a disproportionate share of our country's worst
    afflictionsfrom poverty to unemployment to teen pregnancyat national rates
    that have consistently remained two to three times that of whites for the past 20
    years. Minority youth continue to be isolated, not embraced, by our education
    system, despite the efforts of No Child Left Behind. And in November, another
    unarmed black man was killed in a hail of police bullets, just a subway ride from
    where my daughters go to school. It was a flashback to the bad old days.

    This, to me, is what Black History Month is really abouta time to step back and
    measure our growth as a nation against the work that remains to be done.
    Certainly, I appreciate honoring noteworthy figures who somehow never made it
    into my childhood classroom texts (black scientist Charles Henry Turner; 1867-
    1923; the first to prove that insects can hear). But our children also need to know
    that America's complicated relationship with race is an unfinished story, and it will
    one day be up to them to write its ending. That's why, as a parent, I'd rather spend
    this monthnot to mention the 11 around itmaking sure that my kids understand
    that black history is their history, too.

    Just like their dad at that movie theater nearly 50 years ago, Bridgette and Audrey
    live in a country that still struggles to do the right thing. But unlike their father, they
    were born in a time of progress, a time of hope. We haven't yet reached Martin
    Luther King's mountaintop in America. But I have to believe that our children may
    one day take us there.

    (Illustration by Robert Ahrens, USA TODAY)