For years, my father, a federal employee with a top secret clearance, carried a copy of his birth certificate when he went into Baja California from our home in San Diego. Many times, when he tried to reenter the United States, he was stopped by the border patrol.
My father had thick black hair and naturally dark skin, and the patrol thought he was a Mexican brazenly trying to sneak back into the country by claiming to be married to the black-haired, blue- eyed, light-skinned woman he claimed was his wife. It was annoying.
It was also annoying that once back home, he faced discrimination because neighbors thought he was Mexican. Because we lived in an urban area, not many discriminated against my parents because they were Jews, but there were a few with hatred as great as their ignorance.
When I was 11 years old, we moved two hours north, near Los Angeles, and my parents bought a house in a new tract of about 150 houses, all owned by whites and a few Hispanics. Three or four years later, a realtor came by, plastering flyers on all the houses, announcing he had a special real good, one-time only deal. A few wouldn't sell their houses at any price if it was a Black who was planning to move into the area. Someone in the tract took up the offer, and a Black family - he was a mechanical engineer - moved in. It didn't take long before other white families began putting their houses up for sale. Only this time, they weren't getting as much as the first family that sold out. Soon, the prices began tumbling as other Blacks and Hispanics moved in.
But my parents refused to sell their house. They had no intention of becoming involved with what was now known as "block busting." A few of our Hispanic and Black neighbors wondered why we stayed. My parents always responded they preferred to have as neighbors good people, and it made no difference their ethnicity or race.
Until my father died in 1983, he owned that house in a neighborhood that went from almost 100 percent white to almost 100 percent Black, Hispanic, and lower-class white, refusing to be sucked in by racism.
Discrimination occurs throughout our country, whether we want to believe it or not. A secret tape recording revealed Texaco executives are racist. And we are shocked.
The military revealed that some of its male instructors sexually harassed, and sometimes raped, female recruits. And we are shocked.
A former Avis manager revealed that Avis policy in the Carolinas was to discourage Blacks from renting cars. And we are shocked.
We are shocked because we don't think these things occur. But, they do occur.
A good friend of mine--a Navy submarine veteran, a former newspaper editor and business owner--worked as a bartender because he couldn't get hired anywhere else. He scored in the high 90s on numerous state civil service tests, but was never hired. He applied to many companies, and was seldom given an interview. It had nothing to do with his abilities. It had everything to do the fact that he was in his late 50s, and didn't have a college degree. Chalk up ageism and elitism in one interview.
The law specifically states that employers may not discriminate on basis of age. But, in Pennsylvania, the law is silent on hiring women. It's not unusual for employers to not hire women because they "might" become pregnant and leave, or that they're married. In this economy, some stupidly believe, a well-qualified woman with a working husband should give up her place to a semi-qualified unemployed man.
We discriminate against the handicapped, against gays, against people from the coal region, against people from urban areas, against almost anyone who thinks, acts, or looks different from us. Reporters with college degrees will often give higher credibility to a freshly-scrubbed suit-wearing PR person than to someone who is homeless.
Numerous studies reveal that women who are frumpy, no matter what their income or education is, and men who are fat, short, bald, or have beards are discriminated against, both as customers and as employees.
Want to be a CEO for a Fortune 500 company? Make sure you're about 6-foot tall - too tall also doesn't work, either - weigh about 170-200 pounds, have hair, and look good in Armani suits. And, also make sure you're a male.
Most corporations have "diversity" programs to make their employees more "sensitive" to racial and sexual issues. Tolerance can't be taught as a separate class by someone who will make a lot of money telling us we must be "sharing," "caring," and "feeling" people.
It's too late to preach tolerance by the time someone is a full-time corporate employee. Sensitivity must begin before children attend schools, and continue through their formative years. It must pervade their lives - in classes, in community activities; a little now, a little later. It must be taught by parents, teachers, friends, employees, supervisors, community leaders, and even occasional acquaintances or strangers. Perhaps, then, middle-school students will not laugh at a teacher's racist, sexist, or ethnic joke, but will actually express horror that the teacher is so insensitive to people that he or she must tell these jokes to get a laugh.
Until then, the best we can do is not to be "shocked," but to acknowledge that discrimination in all forms exists, and we must all work to reduce it.
Walter Brasch's latest book is the best-selling Fracking Pennsylvania, an overall look at the economic, health, and environmental effects of horizontal fracturing in the natural gas industry.