I live in a rural, southern town that was dominated by a black-white racial binary for most of its 100+ years existence. There were a few black business owners when I was young--barbers and stylists, mostly. And there were some middle class blacks who'd made money in the timber industry, as educators, and in other fields, who owned and rented houses or made their way on the police jury and school board, and were considered the "prominent" black citizens.
But most of the storeowners were white. I grew up patronizing establishments whose owners were known to be racist, people who used racial slurs freely, who routinely disparaged people of color, who were rumored to belong to the Klan, who eyed you coldly as you walked around their stores. Some would hire African-Americans in the stores--young boys as bag boys and a few black girls and women as cashiers.
Other fields were similary white--banking and medicine (CNAs, cafeteria workers, and janitors were black, of course), in particular.
The saddest part is that many of us learned to accept it and to think, in a sense, that white ownership and dominance in certain occupations was the way it had to be. Three examples stick out to me right now.
1. When each bank hired one black teller and stuck to that quota until they merged a few years ago, that was just the way it was.
2. The owners of the only store that stays open after 10 p.m. are southeast Asian. While the relationship between the owners and primarily-black customers seems mutually antagonistic, I have seen black customers treat them in a way I've never seen white store owners treated--yelling at the store owners and making threats, for example. I've heard black customers disdainfully call them "A-rabs" and "Julios."
3. The bank has finally hired it's first Latino teller, and he has had to deal with backlash from black and white customers who question his hiring or who initially didn't want to be helped by him.
But, I keep thinking, it's a different day. Slowly, as surely as time progresses, things will here, too.
Not very quickly, however. The teller that I mentioned just passed his citizenship test and his co-workers at the bank held a celebration for him. The local dentist stopped in and offered his enthusiastic approval.
"I wish they'd all do that," he said. And if that isn't stomach-turning enough, turns out that, some time ago, he invited the bank president to a meeting of the local business club.
He wanted to present the case for why the ATMs should be English-only.
He is the only practicing dentist in a town with a majority black population and a growing Latin@ population.
It just makes me sad that two or three decades from now, some resident of my town will still be able to begin a story with, "I grew up patronizing establishments whose owners were known to be racist..."*
*I know this is not distinctive to my town or the South; it just bothers me.