Insights

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: Feb 25, 2016 12:01 AM
Insights

A young black woman accustomed to taking care of white invalids of a certain age asks: "May I use the same bathroom?"

Her question sets off a flood of memories: There was the segregated seating on the trolleys in the Shreveport of the 1940s -- whites from front to back. All the driver had to do was turn around the little flap above each seat and Colored became White. Talk about what used to be called Passing. And then the driver would tell all the black passengers to move to the rear of the trolley.

The black kids got off where the paved road ended and proceeded to walk down a muddy track leading to their school out of sight at the bottom of a hill. I knew from that age on that segregation was wrong, wrong, wrong -- and got dirty looks from my classmates when I dared say so. "A traitor to your race," one called me. What race, I wondered. Whatever race that kid belonged to, I didn't want any part of.

When the time came for high school graduation, our class was asked whether we would prefer to dress alike in the same rented academic robes or wear dress clothes, for even then dress codes were becoming passe. One boy got up at assembly to speak for dress clothes because "you could never tell who had rented those robes before," meaning black kids -- Negroes, Colored, whatever the polite appellation was at the time. When an ethnic group can't decide what to call itself, you know it's in trouble. An identity crisis, it's called. The way enlightened German Jews once preferred to call themselves Germans of the Hebraic persuasion.

"May I use the same bathroom?"

I was driving back from the University of Missouri at Columbia in my student days when I stopped for gas somewhere in northern Arkansas, and a black family drove up. You could tell they had been on the road all night and the kids were all antsy. "No," said the attendant. "That's for whites only." I was infuriated, and jerked the line out of the gas tank. "You can keep your damned gas," I told him. And stalked off. The young are so righteous -- then as now.

Naturally I was a Republican, too. For in those days Republicans were the party that pushed civil rights. The South had only one party (Democratic), one crop (cotton) and one issue that was never to be discussed (race).

In college I would be president of my Young Republican chapter. But today all that has changed, and the old Solid South has become solidly Republican -- so when I'm asked if I'm a Cruz Republican or, God forbid, a Trump Republican, I can only reply: None of the above. I am, was and hope I'll always be a member of that vanishing breed: the Lincoln Republican.

"May I use the same bathroom?"

One question unlocks the vast treasure house that is the past. Not just our own but a whole region's, a whole civilization's. It can be opened with just a click, a stray remark, and best of all a liberal education -- if students are still permitted to get one instead of the compilation of ethnic, class and social slogans now on offer at campuses across the country. That sad admix usually goes under the wholly misleading title Social Justice, which would better be described as social injustice. It is a terrible thing to lose a whole language -- or disfigure it.

So what does a vice chancellor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock do the first chance she gets? She eliminates the school's whole German program at one stroke. So when students ask to study German at what is supposed to be an urban university serving working-class kids, she just tells them: Take the bus to Conway, home of Hendrix College, where you can get a real education.

The result: Now we have a new form of segregation: that between those who have received a liberal education and those just sold a bill of goods and told they're now officially, certifiably Educated because, after all, they've got a diploma to prove it.

"May I use the same bathroom?"

Why not label the drinking fountains in public squares again? So those who have received only a pseudo-education can be identified as the second-class citizens they are, the untouchables of our modern caste system. Without an exposure to the classics, to Greek and Latin, how expect them to understand the composition of the simplest English sentence, too?

"May I use the same bathroom?" One simple question and the banks of memory overflow. Until it is time at last to just Be Still.