By Enrique Tessieri
While the US Civil Rights Movement led by Martin Luther King Jr. did not eradicate racism in the United States, it was singled out as a threat to society and challenged. Landmark laws like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 were not the only matters that changed things. Racism became shameful in many parts of the United States.
Martin Luther King Jr. was killed by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968. I still remember that day as vividly as when President John F. Kennedy’s assassination four years earlier.
We heard about the news of King’s death in class on radio as well. One comment by a white male still rings out in my head even after four decades. It was the face of racism speaking to you in its crudest and rudest form: “It’s a good thing that King was killed,” the man said without any remorse.
Right around when the landmark Civil Rights Act was passed, racism thrived at our elementary school as well as in many other places. In Hollywood, Mexicans were the natural targets of your racism and rage. At our school we hated anyone who was different, even an obese classmate.
I’ll never forget when our school got its first black student. The principle gave a talk to the whole school shortly before this historic event at our elementary school. He told us to treat the new student with respect and like any other student.
I personally felt sorry and ashamed by the hostile behavior of my fellow classmates. I did speak out but there was very little I could do. What happened, however, left a lasting and disturbing impression that has followed me during my lifetime.
The black student lasted about two weeks at our school.
I only remember his last name. It was Brown. Some kids joked about it making comparisons of his last name to excrement.
How is it possible that children can learn so much hatred and racism?
For one, racism wasn’t shameful back then. It was part of a child’s everyday language. If you were an adult, it was part of your macho identity if you were a man.
It’s clear that racism thrives in places where it isn’t effectively challenged. Racism is an astute foe because it can poison your mind even without your knowledge. Some racists don’t know that they behave and hold such anti-social attitudes.
The rise of a party like the Perussuomalaiset in April and its leader Timo Soini playing down racism are good examples of how this social ill has grown in a Finnish context. The arguments used are the same that racists in the U.S. and in other parts of the world justified ethnic discrimination.
If Soini were black or part of a minority like the Romany, I doubt that he’d play down the role of racism in the PS never mind Finland.
Just like racism can feed and help a movement like the Nazi Party to grow in the 1930s, it can bring out as well great leaders like King and the best in our society.
We’ll know that we have won that decisive victory against racism and xenophobia in Finland when the majority of Finns consider them shameful and unacceptable.