Friday, August 18, 2006
The South Trip, Birmingham, Alabama (Day 4)
It's been only four decades since blacks marched for civil rights
in the South, when places like Birmingham, Ala., seethed with
tension and occasional violence between the races. If you didn't
already know, it would be hard to believe this prosperous city,
home to several colleges and a state university with a nationally
recognized medical center, is the place where four little, black
girls died in 1963 when a bomb exploded at the Sixteenth Street
Race relations have improved significantly, it seems, so we're
only mildly surprised to meet three women in their early 20s sharing
a house near the campus of the University of Alabama, Birmingham
-- one white, Melanie Smoke; one black, Alesha Hardin; and one
Vietnam-born, Doan Phan (pronounced Dawn). These three members
of Generation Next thought nothing of living together -- after
all, they met at UAB.
Both 24 and now graduated, Melanie works as an emergency room
nurse and Doan as a hospital X-ray technician. Alesha, who's 22,
is still a full-time student, but works full-time, too, at a nonprofit
agency that matches volunteers with community service programs.
Melanie is a roommate of the two the other girls, who are close
Typical of many -- if not most -- young women of their generation
today, they're cell phone- and Internet-dependent, and they enjoy
shopping and going out with friends and each other. But there's
much more to these three young women than buying shoes and hanging
out at martini bars. All three plan to pursue graduate degrees:
"A master's is now what a B.A. used to be," said Alesha.
And in long conversations sprinkled with vocabulary and cultural
references that mark the well-educated, they easily move from
the Korean nuclear threat and the current state of American politics,
to their distrust of much of the news media.
They worry about the world that they and their children will grow
up in, and stress that people shouldn't have children unless they
plan to spend time with them. They also said they still see racism
all around them.
"When Doan and I go out for dinner -- just the two of us
-- or when we're with some guys -- who may be Asian, or black,
or white -- people just stare," said Alesha. "I've seen
it all my life. You don't grow up in Alabama and not see it."
It was even worse, she explained, when she dated a white guy a
few years ago: "You should have seen peoples' reactions.
It really bothered him, but not me -- I just laughed about it,
I'm used to it."
Doan interrupted that she hasn't noticed "the stares"
as much as Alesha has, but told us, "Attitudes haven't changed
as fast as they should have in this country about race."
She added, "It used to be that people would say and do things
out in the open; now, they're more 'PC'," indicating quotation
marks with her fingers. Doan said that her parents experienced
outright racism when they first came to the United States from
Vietnam in 1984, and moved to Mobile.
Doan and Alesha, neither of whose parents went beyond high school,
already enjoy career and educational options that their parents
could only dream of. Attitudes toward blacks and Asians still
have a way to go, but Doan, at 24, already earns more than her
parents, she said, and Alesha is the first in her family to go
to college. Always in the honors program in high school, and fascinated
by history and politics, Alesha said she's known since she was
very young that she'd go to college, and pursue a career.
In the heart of the deep South -- two young women -- an African
American and a Vietnamese, knocking down racial barriers others
took decades to build.
After spending several hours with them, all I can say is, Watch
out, world, for Doan and Alesha!
-- Judy Woodruff