This is my last Newsmax column before my next birthday. That will be my 68th birthday, and I can say that I do not like it at all. No, sir, I just don’t like it.
But as I look around at life, I am simply awed at the changes that have happened in my lifetime. We talk all of the time about how bad things are and how terribly life has deteriorated. In many ways, that’s true, especially for urban nonwhites. But in a fantastic number of ways, the improvements in life in this country have been breathtaking.
When I was a child, growing up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, D.C., racism was simply a basic part of life. My schools in Montgomery County, one of the most progressive counties in the nation, were segregated by law. It was illegal for black children to even attempt to go to schools where whites went. This did not change until 1956 and then only gradually.
Racism against Jews was powerful and set in stone. In the best neighborhoods in Montgomery County and in Washington, D.C., itself, all truly prestigious neighborhoods were restricted against Jews, Asians, blacks, Hispanics, but most especially against Jews, since Jews were the only out-group who could afford to live in those neighborhoods.
This restriction against Jews was not just a wink and a nod. It was in the deeds of the houses that they could not be transferred to anyone of the Hebrew persuasion. I saw this in the deed of the first home I ever bought, in Wesley Heights in northwest Washington, D.C. I was able to buy it in 1974 only because of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, enacted upon the urging of Lyndon Baines Johnson.
The best private schools were restricted against Jews and blacks in those schools were unheard of. The same private schools where presidents now send their children simply did not allow more than one or two Jews per class and no blacks.
This was in Washington, D.C — the nation’s capital — once again.
The most prestigious law firms in Washington, D.C., unless they were “Jewish” firms like Arnold, Fortas & Porter, took accepted no Jews or almost no Jews. The few Jews they did take did not make partner.
This was the situation around the whole country, not just in a southern area like Washington, D.C.
For women, the situation was bleak. Even the most capable woman, far more capable than the men in her high school class, could aspire to little more than to be a school teacher — and often they were required never to marry.
A tiny percent of the women who went to college went to law school or medical school, but again, these were tiny fragments of all of the qualified women who could have or would have gone if they were men.
Just as a basic matter of human dignity, it was deeply wounding to pass by a country club that sat on lordly grounds in the middle of the city and know that club got wildly preferential tax treatment — and discriminated 100 percent against Jews. Blacks would not have been allowed in even as caddies.
The seats of power in law, finance, the academy, government, were all occupied by Christian white men. There might have been a few token Jews and one token black and a woman, but they were tokens alone.
Now all of that has changed. Women are far more than half of all of the law students in this country. They are more than half of the medical students. Women sit on the highest seats of governance, public and private, in the nation. We have a black president. We have a woman secretary of state, and it looks as if we will soon have another one, making four in a row.
The levers of corporate and media power in this country are wielded by men and women whose grandparents were lucky to get jobs as tailors — my fellow Jews, whose success in the postwar era has been simply stupefying. (The only major holdout has been at the most “prestigious” country clubs, where Jews and blacks are still verboten.)
The opportunities in this country for everyone have exploded. The barriers of race and sex are not by any means completely down, but they are largely down.
The doors are wide open (to mix metaphors). Not everyone has the discipline and intelligence to get through those doors, but the success beyond the doors is beckoning to everyone. This is progress.
There are many sad stories about what’s happened to America since 1944, especially about the lack of respect for life, for the family, for law and for decency. But in terms of the destruction of racism and sexism, a struggle fought primarily by black men, women, and children in the South, my life has seen glory.
Ben Stein is a writer, actor, and lawyer, who served as a speechwriter in the Nixon administration as the Watergate scandal unfolded. He began his unlikely road to stardom when director John Hughes cast him as the numbingly dull economics teacher in the urban comedy, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Read more reports from Ben Stein — Click Here Now.
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