An early lesson in systemic bias

I’m a Jewish white boy who was raised in an upper middle class suburb outside of New York City where almost no black people lived. I say almost, because there was one black student by the name of Sam Houston in my class in grammar school.

The Houston family lived at the north edge of town on a road running through some parcels that had been part of a land grant made to former slaves after the civil war. The only families who lived on that road were black, and few of the white residents in our town were aware that such a neighborhood even existed. The houses were old and, compared to the type of homes lived in by most residents, looked run-down and dilapidated. The land in question was low-lying, located in an area that in the past had been swampy and not particularly desirable.

Sam was the youngest of several sons, and his older brother Thurman preceded him in my school and had been in the same class as my older brother, Jeff. By all accounts, Thurman was a superb athlete, tall and well-liked, and Sam followed in his brother’s footsteps, except in height; Sam too was exceptionally strong, with huge shoulders and powerful legs, which made him popular in gym class. Having Sam on your team usually meant winning.

The Houstons were poor. I can’t pretend to fully grasp the experience of being black, and poverty was not something I experienced growing up. To the contrary, I lived a privileged life, free from wants. From time to time I’d run into some antisemitism, but that’s as close as I ever got to bigotry. Sam, on the other hand, despite his athletic talents, was a boy apart, and there were those who took pleasure in making racist comments behind his back.

The reality of Sam’s life was impressed upon me during class one day in fifth grade. Like all of us, Sam had to finish and turn in his homework each day, which was collected by our teacher. We all used blue-lined paper, three-hole punched, for our homework, on which we diligently printed our name, date, and class information in the upper right-hand corner. On this particular occasion, as he handed his homework to the teacher, she stopped, quickly looked at it, turned it over, and examined the other side. 

“Mr. Houston,” she proclaimed to Sam and the entire class, “this will not do. As you know, your homework must be completed using a fresh, clean sheet of paper. This sheet of paper has been used before by your brother, Thurman.” She slapped the paper back on Sam’s desk. “F,” she brusquely stated, and moved on to the next desk.

We students went deadly silent, embarrassed for Sam and sharing in his humiliation. The reality was that Sam’s family, unlike our own families, could not afford to buy nice, fresh packages of new blue-lined paper, and were making do with what they had. We all knew it, and were stunned that our teacher was so blind to the economic reality of Sam’s life. By the end of the day, a stack of unused blue-lined paper had accumulated on Sam’s desk; for me, the lesson in systemic bias was never forgotten.

Mid-high school, in 1964, Sam joined the U.S. Navy. I never saw him again.

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