Last Saturday, a good friend, another cerebral Black woman, and I saw “Hidden Figures.” Among the many things that uplifting film depicted, it showed how the separation of Blacks and Whites continued until it died in a final gasp of breath.
The segregation of libraries sections, water fountains, bathrooms, and even coffee pots reinforced second-class citizenship, which some people, both Black and White, internalized as proof positive of the inferiority of Blacks, rather than as an oppressive regime under which a group of intelligent people had to endure.
Yet, when the most capable mathematician at NASA had inconvenienced her White boss during her mile-long roundtrip to the colored bathroom, her situation motivated him to immediately integrate the bathrooms. Very practical. Once that parallel practice disappeared, more parallel systems vanished, but not without a trace and, of course, not without a fight.
We may take sharing public facilities for granted today, but for some Whites who lived through that transitionary time, they experienced a loss of status. They perceived a cheapening of their quality of life, for their separate services reaffirmed their social superiority. But not their intellectual superiority. At least not to strong Black people.
There’s the valuable difference. The difference that Black parents, my parents’ generation and older, knew and had inspired their number one advice to their children: you have to be twice as good as Whites to get half as much. Strong Black parents never internalized the social superiority of Whites as the true value of their position. They envisioned achieving the American dream, where being twice as good as Whites would create undeniable evidence of worth.
The bathrooms at NASA were integrated because the parallel system could no longer be sustained. Socially constructed separation deteriorated because a black female mathematician, who, by any standards, was a genius. Having ready access to her math skills outgrew the importance of prohibiting her access to the closest bathroom.
Those bathroom scenes made me reflect upon the success of the bus boycotts and sit-ins. At the end of the day, the White owners of those businesses were losing money every day protests and boycotts took place rather than transactions. Every business plan must include making money. When racist practices disrupt cash flow, money wins in the end.
Granted, some use money to maintain their separation, but for those who cannot literally afford it, they must live an integrated life. If such people could see the bigger picture, they’d realize that they have more in common with someone of their own socioeconomic status than someone of their same socially constructed “race.”
Nonetheless, as we enter the next exciting chapter of our great American social experiment, I wonder which other divisive practices will go extinct.