Michael Ryan

How’s your racial IQ? Here’s how to improve it, without working hard at all

The first Fort Worth institution that reached out to me on my arrival here last fall was the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society.

I visited its Lenora Rolla Heritage Center Museum recently. There was no line.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I watched the Fort Worth community dedicate a plaque in General Worth Square commemorating King’s lone visit and 1959 speech here. It was a good crowd, especially for a chilly morning, and attendees heard a stirring re-creation of King’s final “I’ve Been To the Mountaintop” speech he delivered the night before his assassination. There was plenty of room for more observers at the outdoor ceremony.

Then, on Feb. 12, I watched two engaging young actors at the University of Texas at Arlington recreate, from a local playwright’s script, a historic White House meeting between President Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass. The riveting free event, followed by a frank panel discussion on the state of race in America, was co-sponsored by The Frederick Douglass Republicans of Tarrant County and UTA’s College of Liberal Arts. Again, there was a good crowd, and even food and drink, but there were seats available.

I wasn’t looking particularly hard for such opportunities to expand my racial IQ. I didn’t have to. The opportunities are ample out there. They often present themselves. Other times you just have to look.

It’s a good idea to look, too — especially if, somehow in this increasingly diverse America of the 21st century, you live in something of a racial cocoon.

Being swaddled from birth among those who look and sound like you is a most seductive sensation. It’s easy, comforting, uncomplicated. Especially if you’ve never really been exposed to anything else.

I happen to know. My first real recognition of ethnic identity was when a Jewish buddy in school took to affectionately calling me “Irish Ryan.” I thought it a bit odd, but certainly not off-putting: Thanks to St. Patrick’s Day, I felt my ethnicity was pretty cool. I since learned that wasn’t always the case, especially in America’s early years.

I know now that I was raised in ethnic isolation.

As I see it, that’s the best explanation for the recent, second racist internet video featuring white Southlake teens spouting the n-word into a cellphone for all the world to see.

I recently watched Spencer Tracy’s depiction of Boy’s Town founder Father Flanagan — who, in the movie, tests his theory that “there’s no such thing in the world as a bad boy.” Likewise, I don’t think those Southlake youths are bad. I think they’re insulated, in a community where 2 percent of students are African-American. They appear to have had no clue — until the uproar — just how disgusting and hurtful that word is. The fact that it’s still used with gusto in some music doesn’t help. But there are no excuses for such ignorance.

Brenda Sanders-Wise doesn’t think they’re bad kids, either. The executive director of the Tarrant County Black Historical and Genealogical Society stands ready to embrace them, and any other students who could use a little immersion into the African-American historical experience. Did somebody say “field trip”?

I wish a Southlake field trip also could’ve been with me at the Lincoln-Douglas re-enactment. The fact that the actual meeting between the two took place a full century before the remarkably similar relationship between Martin Luther King and President Johnson, during the 1960s civil rights struggles, made me come away encouraged — but shaking my head at how excruciatingly slow progress can be.

In talking with Southlake Mayor Laura Hill and Carroll Independent School District spokeswoman Julie Thannum, I was bowled over by the depth of their revulsion at the incidents and the lengths they’re going to prevent any more. They’re working absolutely feverishly on racial enlightenment.

I’d encourage parents, not just in Southlake but everywhere, to do the same. Avail yourselves of the area’s many opportunities to grow your and your children’s racial awareness and empathy.

Nor can I understate the value of international travel — particularly mission trips — in broadening one’s horizons and growing one’s heart to the size of 10 Grinches plus two.

Rather than disrespect and division, our differences can be the source of unlimited adventure and development.

If you feel your feet up against the inside of a cocoon, kick your way out of it.

The Star’s Michael Ryan, a Kansas City native, is an award-winning editorial writer and columnist and a veteran reporter, having covered law enforcement, courts, politics and more. His opinion writing has led him to conclude that freedom, civics, civility and individual responsibility are the most important issues of the day.