Nelson Mandela died this week and I have been very sad, but contemplative about what he meant to me.
I remember the divestment protests at my Alma Mater, UC Berkeley in 1985. Divestment was a means to financially hurt South Africa due to their system of racial segregation called apartheid. Under this system, non-whites were not citizens, had no representation, lived in separate areas, had separate schools, medical care and social services, all of which were inferior to those provided to whites.
My awareness of apartheid, as well as that of many Americans, grew out of those protests. I remember the talks amongst friends. Our discussions about the horrors of apartheid and what was happening in South Africa. The stories of the various anti-apartheid activists murdered by the South African regime; people like Steven Biko.
But I learned about racism long before these protests. While apartheid was a system in a foreign country, America does not have ‘clean hands’ when it comes to racial prejudice. We also have a history of systemic injustice typified by Jim Crow, the anti-voting laws, racial based covenants against land ownership, the KKK and segregation.
I had school mates who were the first Asian family to buy a home in their neighborhood; they never played in their front yard for fear of retaliation. The uncle of my best friend in middle school was the first Chinese-American to buy a home in one of the exclusive neighborhoods in San Francisco. The parents of my best friend in high school were interned in camps during the war because they were of Japanese descent. As a child of Greek immigrants, I heard my parents’ stories of prejudice against them; how my father had to change his long Greek last name to something shorter and more pronounceable in order to fit in. I still get flack when my name doesn’t fit on official documents or fill-in forms. I remember the man with his eyes bulging from rage, screaming at my mother and I in the middle of a supermarket, while every one watched and did nothing. He screamed at us for speaking Greek instead of English, how foreigners like us should go back to our countries. I screamed right back and told him I was born in Oakland.
During my high school years, prejudices became a divisive force and tensions grew. Something as simple as the choice of a band for a school event fueled racial tensions. Many of my former Asian friends were pressured to not speak to me. Most still did. But there were ones that didn’t. Fights amongst different ethnic groups occurred. Several students were beaten, one so badly that he ended up in the hospital. But acts of working together also occurred. Members of the high school football team broke into groups of black and white players and roamed the halls keeping the peace.
As an adult, I’ve seen my old neighborhood in my beloved Oakland left with garbage on the sidewalks, potholes and rampant crime because the majority of residents are poor African Americans.
I’ve seen the difference between white justice and black justice. Northern lynchings. Racial profiling. Prejudice. Inequality. Injustice.
The first home I bought had a covenant running with the land, an enforceable prohibition preventing any owner from selling to Blacks, Jews, Hispanics or other non-whites. I’ve lived in an affluent city on the Peninsula where an African American family moved out due to the racism their children were subjected to in school (in 1997!!). Where I live today, police recently detained two African American boys and their Hispanic friend for doing nothing more than waiting outside their own home while the older brother backed out the family car to drive them somewhere. This is 2013!! Sometimes it feels that little has changed.
We were denied a home loan because my spouse is Hispanic, the year was 1996. Recently, for our second home loan we suspected a similar problem, but this time I threatened to sue and the loan was granted.
Yet, I am reminded that Northern California was more tolerant than other parts of the country. That fact gives me great pause.
After the apartheid protests at CAL, I followed the news of South Africa and then the news of the release of Nelson Mandela. He travelled to the United States and spoke at the Oakland Coliseum as a thank you to the efforts of the students at CAL, and others in the East Bay who had protested against apartheid. Four years later in 1994, he was elected President of South Africa in the first free election. He lead his country, then at the end of his term, he stepped down and allowed for a Democratic and peaceful transition of power.
Then this week we received the sad news of Nelson Mandela’s death and I am reminded of the lessons he taught with his quest for freedom and justice.
Nelson Mandela taught me that racial prejudices and injustice happen whenever we view a person as different and therefore less worthy of dignity, equality and respect then ourselves. But he also taught that prejudice can also end with us. Rather than espousing hatred for his former oppressors, Nelson Mandela embraced reconciliation. It takes a great man to do that. Nelson Mandela was such a man.