Former Infantry Officer in Vietnam Talks of Personal Evolution on Matters of Race – and About Summoning the Courage to Confront Racist Remarks 

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – Marty Goldrick is an engaging man in his early 70s and an easygoing conversationalist. He is retired from a career in human resources, including a stint at Whirlpool Corp. as a vice president of human resources. In the late 1970s, when he helped push affirmative action in hiring at a Whirlpool factory in nearby St. Joseph – with the goal of making its workforce more closely match the makeup of the area’s population – “we would bring in 90 %  black people from Benton Harbor.” That caught the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, which sent a note to his home. In letters cut out from publications and pasted on paper, as if from an old crime thriller movie, the note said: “The KKK is watching you.”   

In matters of race, Goldrick’s parents were poles apart. His father, whom he greatly admired and patterned himself after, was a clerical person for the Internal Revenue Service, and his mother was a secretary. His father grew up in Baltimore, playing with “all kinds of kids.” He said his mother, who was from Georgia, was a “strict racist” and religious hypocrite from a family with Confederate roots. Goldrick conceded that unconscious racial bias probably affected him as a young man, and said his racial awareness has been an evolution over many years. 

 

Vietnam: Mixed Messages about Race

He put himself through junior college and the University of Virginia, and then was a Marine infantry officer in Vietnam at the height of what he terms “a horrible war.” He recalls a blood-brother bond between black and white soldiers while on patrol or in combat. “When we were out in the bush, we were all together, fighting together, surviving together. So that really just erased so much,” Goldrick said in one of several interviews of individuals who have participated in a number of conversations ultimately called Brave Talks: Addressing the Impact of Racism, and who plan to continue indefinitely with these conversations. (Brave Talks are part of a project by Spectrum Health Lakeland and the Todman Family Foundation, Community Grand Rounds: Healing the Trauma of Racism, designed to present the latest evidence of the health effects of chronic, systemic racism.)  

Goldrick still profoundly feels the war-era connection, and at the time of the interview was especially anticipating a reunion of men from his platoon, because one black squad leader who hadn’t been to previous reunions was finally coming.  

Yet Goldrick also remembers how the troops separated along racial lines once they were behind the lines. “The cultural pressure on the blacks” … was “so strong that it actually pulled them away” from the whites, he said. This puzzled and saddened him. His time in Vietnam was during the Black Power movement, and once in his battalion rear area there was a threat of a black race riot, causing battalion officers and staff to patrol the camp while carrying sidearms.

 

Injured by Notion of ‘White Privilege’

Looking back at his group’s first Brave Talk, Goldrick recalled feeling “injured by the insinuation” of the term “white privilege,” the idea that his whiteness had given him a boost in life. He remembers thinking something like, “Well, wait just a minute here!” After all, he didn’t have it financially easy as a kid, and he had to pay for most of his college expenses.  But he said reading Debby Irving’s book “Waking Up White” and other books “started to really explain (to him) what all of that meant: the institutionalized racism, basically.” At the time of the interview for this story Goldrick had also read “The Death Gap” by Dr. David Ansell, which uses Chicago to show the stark disparities in health outcomes and longevity between blacks and whites in the U.S. He had been rereading an old book, “Black Like Me,” and had ordered the book, “Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?: And Other Conversations About Race” because in his Whirlpool days he had been puzzled by all the black adults sitting together in the cafeteria.

Goldrick is a believer in reading – in part to help a person change. People have to be willing to come to a Brave Talk in the first place, and he has found his group to be one in which people can talk openly. “This is a very comfortable group,” he said. They then need to be willing “to take the next steps” and “to drill down and learn.” Reading is one way to drill down.  “Yeah, I had to start with understanding the data, getting over the defensiveness about white privilege, and … (then the revelation) ‘Oh, my God, is that what’s been going on, systemic racism?’

 

Facts are the ‘Starting Points’

Facts gleaned from reading have helped Goldrick discuss with other people the policy of “redlining” that excluded African Americans from desirable neighborhoods in cities throughout the country. The white people he’s talked with about this grasp the problem of redlining, he said. It was a revelation to Goldrick, just as it was to “Waking Up White” author Irving, to discover that black Americans who had served in World War II were largely denied the benefits of the post-war GI Bill for college educations and houses, while white military veterans and their families greatly benefitted.  Goldrick has shared with other white people about the discriminatory way the GI Bill was used.

“So, anyway, to me the starting point was those facts.”

“I’m learning so much,” Goldrick said. “It’s such a learning process individually within the group.” He thinks some of the power of Brave Talks is due to the setting of small, living-room-style intimacy.

 

Confronting Racist Remarks

Brave Talks and his reading have helped Goldrick be bold enough to confront racist comments. He was emboldened by discussions “about having the guts to step up.” One such confrontation happened when another retired man and Goldrick were waiting for the rest of their group members – conservative-leaning men – to arrive for a get-together over coffee. Speaking of Benton Harbor, a town of predominantly black residents, the man made a comment that Goldrick said lumped everyone together in a single characterization, though Goldrick couldn’t remember what the man’s exact statement was. 

“Now that was racist!” Goldrick responded to the man. 

“No it wasn’t,” the man said, without sounding defensive.

Goldrick then used the man’s remark as a springboard to talk about institutionalized racism, in this case redlining. “And it started to lead to a religious conversation because he’s a very religious person – ultra,” a man Goldrick respects and “can really work” with. 

“Normally, in the past I would have let it go,” Goldrick said. “I wouldn’t have bothered to start a fight or anything. I’m not one that’s ever going to preach.

“Normally, in the past I would have let it go,” Goldrick said. “I wouldn’t have bothered to start a fight or anything. I’m not one that’s ever going to preach.

“So the term ‘racist’ caught him (the other man). He didn’t push back on it.” Goldrick feels certain that the man has in the meantime reflected on his own remark and Goldrick’s rejoinders. “I’m sure he’s thinking about it.”

Broadly, Goldrick said, “We’ve got to challenge it (racist remarks), and hopefully not lose any friends over it, but got to challenge it at least.”

 

Person to Person

Although he is all for reading and absorbing facts, Goldrick would really like to have more African Americans in his Brave Talks group. He expresses a keen desire to learn directly from them. He is disappointed a couple of black members seemed to have dropped out, making for a group he considers too white. Learning can’t just be from “reading books and the white-privilege people talking to each other,” he said.

During the interview, Goldrick recalled a memorable moment in one Brave Talk five months before. It came when a few white participants, including Goldrick, talked about how the Community Grand Rounds effort had made them more sensitive to looking black people in the eye rather than essentially not “seeing” them. Goldrick remarked how he and his wife, to create an “ice breaker,” would always “go out of the way” to acknowledge a black person they encountered, even if it meant ignoring a white person nearby.

Two black women appeared to be essentially welcoming to such overtures, but one black woman bristled at the idea. She said simmering resentment at the way they’ve been treated sometimes causes African Americans simply to avoid eye contact with whites. “Everybody’s not like, ‘Oh, my goodness, I’m so glad you spoke to me,’” she said.

 

Confused about What to Do

This woman had not come to the most recent Brave Talk, and Goldrick counted her absence as a loss, because he didn’t understand her perspective and wanted to hear more fully from her. “I really think she’s neat. She’s straightforward, and I like that. I wanted to just work with her and understand more.” 

Goldrick said if he can’t say “Hi” to black people, “Well, then, what the hell are we supposed to say? What am I supposed to do with my white privilege?” 

It was a similar sentiment to what he had expressed five months before during that memorable Brave Talk. He had talked then about momentarily feeling “confused” and “hopeless” for being part of sincere collective efforts to help black children and youth in Benton Harbor, but being criticized for these efforts.

Goldrick said he ultimately decided to keep going out of his way to acknowledge, with a friendly “Hi,” the black people he encounters.