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Chapter 26: Status, Race, and Religion

In their youth, my parents thought of themselves as competing for jobs and promotions with people who were, in some cases, richer than they were and had more formal education but who, nevertheless, were much like themselves. This might not have been the case had they lived in the northeast, but they didn’t. They lived in Kansas City where, in those days, a person’s character and competence counted for more than his background or credentials.

After the War, however, millions of discharged soldiers went to college on the GI Bill. In many jobs, an academic degree became a prerequisite for employment and promotion. And with the number of college applicants increasing, the College Board became a de facto gatekeeper for college admissions. Its SAT tests measure scholastic aptitude. They do not pretend to measure character, which does not lend itself to statistical evaluation.

Before 1960, the students were not told their scores. When that policy changed, the president of the College Board, in a speech at Columbia Teachers College, revealed that there had been “great fear” at the company that “students would have their values warped by learning their own scores.” Put more plainly, he was afraid the students with high scores would be derided by their yahoo peers. But to his delight the students who made low scores were the ones who were derided. He gleefully reported that his own children and their friends were referring to such “unfortunates” as “jerks,” while regarding with “awe” the “genius” who made 700. This, he declared, was a “triumph of morality.”

What it really was was a triumph of a new form of snobbery based on a student’s score on a multiple-choice test. The convenience of “scientific testing” in a mass society and our naive faith in “science” and in “formal education” would lead us to new and dangerous social divisions that ignore a multitude of abilities and virtues not susceptible to scientific measurement.

In the 1960s Mary Ellen and Herb found themselves surrounded by younger people with college degrees and intimidating vocabularies—“twenty-five dollar words,” my father called them. Mary Ellen, always sensitive to class markers, secretly began keeping a vocabulary list in a little notebook.

One Christmas, I gave her a book of dog stories. She thanked me, but I heard no more about it. Years later she thanked me for it a second time, confessing that she’d thought I was insulting her by giving her a “simple” book about dogs. When she discovered that it wasn’t a children’s book, she was overjoyed.

She never voted for her fellow Kansas Citian, President Truman. He was part of “the Pendergast gang.” She also disapproved of the locker-room language he used in his letter to the critic who belittled his daughter’s singing. But although my mother would have expressed herself differently (and privately) she would have felt the same way if some uppity journalist criticized one of her children. She was fiercely loyal and sometimes—like Harry—embarrassingly so. She also shared his disdain for the “overeducated.” I don’t suppose she knew he called Senator J. William Fulbright (President Clinton’s political mentor) “an over-educated Oxford SOB.” That wasn’t the kind of thing newspapers reported in those days. But I’m sure she would have felt the same way about that supercilious racist.

My father, Herbert Harry Knapp, and Harry S Truman were of different political persuasions: Truman, a Democrat, belonged to an organization called Sons of the Confederacy; my father, a Republican, was the grandson of a man who served in the Grand Army of the Republic. But they both came from rural Missouri backgrounds, both attended the Kansas City School of Law, and they shared a similar cast of mind.

In the late 1950s, Truman gave a lecture on political science at Columbia University. Jacques Barzun attended and said the most striking fact of the President’s performance was the unfailing concreteness of his thought. He apparently felt no need for concepts or generalities. This trait may have limited his philosophic range. It also wonderfully limited his capacity for talking nonsense.” The same was true of my father.

Harry and Herbert also shared a prejudice against Catholics. Though Truman had many Catholic friends, he believed their loyalty to the Church hierarchy made them unfit for high office. He changed his mind when Kennedy was nominated. Herb was not as anti-Catholic as Mary Ellen, but, like her, he disapproved of his daughter’s conversion to Catholicism and of her marriage to a Catholic. On the other hand, when he discovered he could talk business with his new son-in-law—something he couldn’t do with his own sons—his prejudice against Catholics evaporated overnight. Neither Harry S or Herbert Harry “rose above his prejudices.” Their prejudices were, from the start, intertwined with ideas of fairness, loyalty, duty, and friendship. So their decisions in particular cases were never cut and dried.

Both President Truman and my father were uncomfortable around “colored people” and occasionally made racist remarks in private. Nevertheless, Truman ordered the integration of the military and Herb thought integrating the schools was common sense.

“Why not? I went to school with ’em.”

But that did not make him a desegregationist. He and Mary Ellen were visiting my brother and his wife when a couple of their black friends stopped by. They froze—didn’t say a word until the visitors left.

“Your generation may care about ’em,” Herb told my brother, “but mine don’t.”

When friends of my parents’ asked them to tour the Caribbean with them, my parents refused: “Too many black people down there.”

It would be easy to dismiss them as bigots. But that, too, is a form of bigotry—a way of simplifying them. Herb and Mary Ellen were not simple. They were rule-keepers. They didn’t trust people they suspected were playing by different rules. At one time this included blacks, hillbillies, Pentecostals, drunks, Catholics, artists, the idle rich, intellectuals, Jews, and people who were raising children in apartments.

In their estimation, blacks and hillbillies were idle and ignorant; Holy Rollers were irrational; drunks were unpredictable, irresponsible, and brutal; Catholics had more children than they could properly provide for, and, like Jews, kept promises only to their own kind; artists, the idle rich, and intellectuals thought they were superior but were actually incompetent when it came to things that really counted, like money and business; and people who were raising children in apartments lacked foresight. Children need a yard to play in.

But Mary Ellen saw to it that none of her children spoke disparagingly of blacks. She never expressly forbade this. Doing things expressly was not her style. She made clear, though, what was and wasn’t permitted. Once in a while Herb would say something mildly “inappropriate”—not surprising, considering where he’d grown up—but she kept his language in check, too. Her disapproval reflected her belief that overt racism was a class marker—a lower class marker—along with gold teeth and bad grammar.

Nor did anyone in her house ever “talk bad” about Jews. During the late 1930s the family two doors south of us were the only people on the block with a hedge around their front yard. My parents told me only that I wasn’t to chase my ball past their hedge. I was to wait for someone to throw it back. This could take days. I learned that the family was Jewish from one of my playmates and thought this pretty remarkable. I knew Jews existed in the Bible. To learn they were actually living on my own block was like learning the characters in a story could come to life. I never got to know anyone in that family. And my parents didn’t borrow things from them or lend them things as they did with all our other neighbors.

However, after my parents built their dream house, they became “neighborly” with the Jewish families next door and across the street. Common interests and comparable achievements trumped religious differences with Jews just as they had earlier with Catholics. In time, I think comparable achievements would have trumped racial differences, too. The last time my father wrote in his opinion journal was 1986. In it he noted: “Blacks accepted in all walks of life. Good for the country.”