And decent people in a basically decent society behaved decently, even if aspects of that society were unjust and narrow-minded.
Yes, it’s true that for women and minority groups, there wasn’t much they could do when someone did discriminate against them. It was hard for those groups to receive a fair hearing, both in court and in society. Not always impossible, but it was often difficult to receive completely fair treatment.
Yet society upheld standards of decency which enabled decent people to behave decently despite socially acceptable or even law-enforced discrimination. For example, I have southern family members who remember the era of the Jim Crow Laws (forcing black people to sit in the back of the bus, drink from separate water fountains, use separate hospitals and restaurants, etc.).
Yet they also remember their mother greeting the black elevator operator with proper courtesy, including asking after his wife and children. In fact, they never remember their parents behaving rudely toward black people even though the laws of that time did not stop them from doing so.
And further north in New York's late 1940s, my grandfather discovered that the cops were holding a black man accused of murder.
And my grandfather knew that this black man hadn’t ever killed anybody.
Sure, Troy wasn’t a law-abiding citizen per se, but he’d never committed murder. So my grandfather went to the police with the evidence that could free Troy…and they let him go. Troy never forgot what my grandfather did for him and remained a loyal friend for the rest of his life, accompanying my grandfather as a body guard through the rough neighborhoods my grandfather needed to enter for business and teaching my dad to drive.
My grandfather wasn't religious, but he was raised by Jewish immigrants who kept Torah according to their limited understanding. And despite their lack of understanding and deep commitment, I think some of the core values ("Justice, justice thou shalt pursue", etc.) radiated within their souls.
Furthermore, I never heard racial or chauvinistic jokes or slurs from either my northern family members or the southern ones, no matter how old and "old-fashioned" they were.
Yet with the way things are today, you’d think that you’d need someone constantly exhorting you not to be racist just to behave with basic courtesy—or in my grandfather’s case, heroically.
But in fact, many people behaved decently because the society that surrounded them idealized such decency. Even as that same society discriminated against certain groups, those very groups were able to achieve equality by insisting that people live up to the personal values and their national Constitution.
(Yes, I know there was a lot of rowdy and radical stuff that happened too, but if you look at that time period, things were already moving in the direction of equality. The civil rights and feminist movements simply gunned the momentum—and did so in ways that ultimately were not beneficial to the very groups they claimed to be helping.)
To the end of his life, my grandfather referred to black people by the term acceptable throughout his childhood: “colored.” Maybe he used the term “black,” but I don’t believe he ever said, “African-American.”
But you don’t need to be politically correct in order to behave with justice and decency.
You just need to care about justice and decency.
And know that every human being is created in Hashem's Image.