To a remarkable degree, we are the products — all of us — of lifetimes of regrettable accidents.
I am reminded of this afresh each time I open the pages of a serious newspaper — ours or any other — and find the contents skewed in large part to discussion of racial antagonism and injustice.
Those are important subjects, no doubt about it. But the plain fact is that we are not born into this world carrying a freight of racial or ethnic bias.
They are not inherited defects. They are learned.
The only evidence I can offer for that thesis are the experiences of my boyhood and young manhood.
In my earliest youth I was a Cub Scout. The den mother was a lady of the neighborhood, whose residents were without exception Caucasian. And so without exception were the other Cubs in the den.
The same was true of my Boy Scout troop, as well as the adult scoutmaster.
The young couple who adopted me at age 4 days were white, although not once, in their more than 70 years, did I hear either of them so much as mention the subject of race. All their kinfolk were white. So was the minister of the Methodist church they attended, at whose Sunday services my presence was obligatory.
Then came the high school years, and my teachers, several of them wonderfully inspiring, were again uniformly white. As were my football teammates — comrades in the game I loved but for which I was woefully short on talent.
During my time in college, the fraternities were mostly segregated by color. The one sure road to social success was the rare ownership of a car.
It wasn’t until my second year of infantry training at Fort Benning, Ga., that I found my first real friendship with a contemporary of another race.
Gil was his first name. I never knew his last one, nor did he master the complication of mine. We were simply Gil and Gus. That sufficed.
At his alma mater, Wilberforce — the historically black coed liberal arts university in Ohio — he’d been a football running back and a saxophone player in the band.
Now we were both newly commissioned second lieutenants, training for leadership of parachute infantry platoons.
One customary activity in the barracks was the payday night pot-limit poker game, usually with five or six players in the draw.
On a night that I still remember well, I held a killer hand — two kings showing and three aces in the hole.
As it happened, two other players also had full houses — too strong to fold, but neither one as powerful as mine.
Mine was the last raise, and I made it boldly. It was the title to my car — a much used and somewhat decrepit Plymouth convertible.
The winnings from that one hand covered a year of previous losses.
“We both did pretty good,” I told Gil. “Let’s go in town, get a big breakfast and celebrate. I’m thinking biscuits and gravy and grits.”
On the main street of Columbus there was an eatery much favored by soldiers at the base.
“Do you know where we are?” Gil replied. “We’re in Georgia. We can’t eat breakfast together.”
That was the first time in my 22 years that I’d seen firsthand the irrational impact of prejudice.