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‘People who might have racial biases, when they meet people one-on-one and get to know them, the barriers come down.’ -- Claudette Crouse (above), with her husband, Henry.
‘People who might have racial biases, when they meet people one-on-one and get to know them, the barriers come down.’ -- Claudette Crouse (above), with her husband, Henry. (Jonathan Wiggs/ Globe Staff)
How we live here

Togetherness

Claudette and Henry Crouse are helping bridge the racial divide

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / December 29, 2005

Last in a series of occasional articles about blacks and Hispanics living in metro Boston

CARLISLE -- When Claudette and Henry Crouse look at each other, they don't see color. In their ideal world, no one else will, either.

They first met in the mid-1970s at Digital Equipment Corp., where Henry was an executive playing a prominent role in the firm's effort to recruit minorities. When he interviewed Claudette for a job, they clicked immediately. Though it would be several years before romance bloomed, there was an ardor to the language they used about each other from the beginning.

''He was so easy to talk to. I went down to personnel and I said, 'Oh, I just love him. I just love him.' And he called and he said: 'I adore her,' " recalls Claudette. ''So there was an instant connection, not romantically, but an ease of being able to understand and communicate with each other."

That remains the case after 23 years of marriage, even though, on the surface, they could not be more dissimilar. Claudette brings life into every conversation and every room she enters; Henry measures out his words one careful syllable at a time. Claudette enjoys the social whirl of parties and galas; Henry's idea of a good time is a quiet evening at home. Claudette is black; Henry is white.

It is that last fact that has given them a unique vantage from which to observe -- and to experience firsthand -- the evolving racial dynamic in Greater Boston. Not only are the Crouses close friends with more than a dozen other interracial couples, but of their four adult children (two from Henry's previous marriage to a white woman, two from Claudette's prior marriage to a black man), three have been involved in long-term interracial relationships.

''I don't see color," says Henry's son, Richard Crouse, of Acton, a white man who is married to a black woman. ''I've been acclimated to this whole thing." So has Claudette's son, George Pendleton, of Tyngsborough, a black man who has been involved with a white woman for 17 years. Perhaps not surprisingly in a family where interracial relationships are so woven into the fabric, Pendleton sees such unions as a force for broader social unity. ''The more that we understand other cultures, it makes it easier to see why we're more alike than different," he says.

Like many other metropolitan areas, Greater Boston has historically been racially bifurcated when it comes to housing, employment, and education. Race has often been viewed through prisms of black or white. Interracial relationships, though, are a series of private choices about whom to love that add a complex element to the public equation. In challenging assumptions on both sides of the racial divide, interracial relationships have the potential to transform notions of race.

The picture that is emerging nationally mirrors the Crouse home front. In the past 20 years, the number of interracial marriages has climbed from fewer than 700,000 couples to 1.7 million, according to the US Census Bureau (which does not break down those numbers by state). But it is the personal, day-to-day interactions that cannot necessarily be measured by statistics that are often most revealing.

Consider the generational passages within the Crouses' own families: Henry's father did not even meet a black person until he was 21 years old. Attending high school in Everett, Henry had only one black classmate. But Henry transcended conventional expectations and married a person of color. His son has done the same.

However, these passages were not without some bumps. In the 1970s, it still required a bit of daring to plunge into an interracial relationship. When she and Henry first began dating in 1978, Claudette says, ''I didn't tell anybody for a long time." She got some flak from some black men who sharply questioned her decision to date Henry, suggesting, she recalls, that ''I should be dating them."

When Henry showed up with Claudette as his date for a dinner party at the home of a top manager at Digital, the manager reacted with wide-eyed shock. Others concealed it better, but it was clear to Claudette and Henry how taken aback some were. ''Other people had the mindset that that was something wrong," Henry says. He found this baffling. When he described Claudette to others, Henry did not even think to mention her race. ''I didn't see color," he says. ''I saw beauty and brains. And that's part of my criteria for happiness."

Henry and Claudette had come to their relationship with sharply divergent experiences of race. After a youth spent with virtually no exposure to black people, Henry entered the Army in the 1950s, where he was jolted by the open discrimination against black troops. ''I experienced it in a way that impacted me: 'This isn't right. This doesn't feel good to me,' " he recalls. ''It seemed unnatural not to treat people as people."

Claudette, by contrast, had always moved in diverse circles. Raised in Philadelphia before coming to Boston for college, she traveled frequently, and lived and worked in England, where her friends and co-workers included blacks and whites. Still, she was ''a little bit leery" about introducing Henry to her father, whom she describes as ''very conservative." But after the two men spent some time together, Claudette pulled her father aside and asked: ''Well, Dad, what do you think?" Her father replied: ''He's a good, fine man."

During another visit to Philadelphia, upon entering a church with Claudette, Henry found that he was the only white person in the pews. ''So we sit down front and I'm sitting there and the minister comes down and shakes my hand and says 'You are most welcome. I hope you enjoy the service,' " he says. ''It was very sensitive."

Even amid such grace notes, though, the couple was aware that their romance and their eventual marriage were playing out against a highly charged social backdrop, especially in Boston, where the wounds of court-ordered busing were still fresh.

''When I moved here, black people were scared to go to South Boston," says Claudette; similarly, Henry observes, white people were afraid to go to Roxbury. In that context, interracial relationships were such a flash point that Claudette thought long and hard about where to live, eventually choosing what she calls the ''anonymity" of a condominium complex in Brookline.

Drawing on the lessons of their own life together, and on their separate strengths, Claudette and Henry made it their business to bring people together across racial lines. Claudette left Digital in 1988 after 15 years of working in human resource management (with time out to pursue a graduate degree). Over the ensuing years, she worked as a consultant for WGBH, Fleet Bank, Houghton Mifflin, and the Cambridge YWCA. She also formed an investment group consisting of seven black women, seven white women, three Asian-Americans, and one Latina. ''It was really mostly about building friendships with women you wouldn't normally meet and get to know," she says.

Henry, who was Digital's vice president of strategic relations, took early retirement in 1992 at age 57 and launched a career of steering venture capital to technology start-up companies. He believes the growth of the high-tech sector has been a boon to race relations in Massachusetts, because, in his view, it is a relatively color-blind culture. ''With all these young people, the idea is important," he says. ''So the person is less important than the idea."

He encourages the start-up firms to ''ensure that everyone has an opportunity" by aggressively recruiting minority employees. With his extensive connections in the high-tech community (he now serves as vice president of operations at IPOP Network, a digital media firm based in Merrimack, N.H., that works with national beer and liquor brands on interactive promotions), Henry has also acted as what Claudette calls ''my financial backer" for causes designed to promote diversity. ''We both have the same values, in caring about people and wanting to make a difference, wanting to help the community," says Claudette. ''I want to make the community better by working with people, the less-haves, and he wants to make the community better by creating jobs for them."

Two years ago, Claudette became president and chief executive officer of the Topf Center for Dance Education in Boston. The nonprofit center helps inner-city youths of all ethnic groups build self-confidence and learn to see a wider world of possibilities through what Claudette calls ''the creativity and discipline and art of dance." More than 3,000 Boston public school students each week receive dance training, exposure to the arts, and ''multicultural education" from the center. The goal, Claudette says, is to teach them ''how to appreciate and get along with people from all cultures." Henry gave $20,000 to the Topf Center this year and helped mobilize business associates to contribute to a gala that raised $200,000 for the center.

More quietly, the Crouses share -- and act on -- a belief that barriers are dissolved one encounter at a time. One room in their house is festooned with hundreds of snapshots of friends and aquaintances, black and white. ''We have conversations about race and racism openly with our black friends and our white friends," Claudette says. ''I think there's many causes of racism. One is resources and two is ignorance and fear and three is that people just don't get to socialize and see people in their natural environment."

Nevertheless, the Crouses say they have seen significant strides toward racial harmony in the nation (they note approvingly how many interracial couples are featured now on TV shows, for instance, compared to when they first met, when only ''The Jeffersons" had such a couple), and in the Boston area. ''Boston's a hugely different city," says Henry. Adds Claudette: ''I certainly think times have changed. . . . I'm so proud to be from Boston."

That pride is mixed with concern about the racial tensions that remain, along with the Crouses' fear that the recent rounds of layoffs at Boston-area companies could reverse minority gains in the workplace. But overall, Claudette and Henry Crouse see heartening evidence that hostility toward interracial relationships is starting to become a thing of the past. ''In our generation, they felt that you were betraying your class," says Claudette. ''But I don't think the current generation, people in their late 20s, early 30s, I don't think they experience that."

If that is true, younger interracial couples owe a debt to people like the Crouses, who were a vibrant part of a wave that appears to be gathering force. ''The more people are exposed to each other, people find that they have the same aspirations and the same hopes and dreams for the future," says Claudette. ''People who might have racial biases, when they meet people one-on-one and get to know them, the barriers come down."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.

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