Monday, September 7, 2015

Some Random Reflections on Race

We hear the appalling news of yet another young black person having been brutalized or even gunned down by a white cop for the crime of being both black and defiant, and despair at how racism continues to flourish in our country. In response to blacks rightly decrying white racism, a certain sort of white person responds by saying that there’s such a thing as black racism too, whereupon the most hemophiliac in the bleeding-heart left (of which I’m a card-carrying member, mind you), rend their garments and cry, “We all share in the blame!”

Try talking about the lack of black racism to my Latino friend whom a pair of black kids beat into a very nearly fatal coma a couple of years ago for the crime of being brown in a black neighborhood.
Naturally, a fair number of black people don’t want to hear it, of course. In the mid-90s, I trained in San Francisco to be a volunteer CASA, a court-appointed special advocate in cases involving foster and other children. Part of the training, to do with racial sensitivity, was administered by a black guy, in a huge wind-tunnel Afro and a blindingly colorful dashiki, who bewailed the fact that sometimes when he came down the street toward them, white folk would cross to the other side. Racism, said he! 

Nonsense, said I, or at least not necessarily racism. If you were wearing Dockers, a LaCoste sport shirt, short hair, and Liz Claiborne glasses, said I, my guess is that the vast majority of your street-crossers would be perfectly happy to share the sidewalk with you. Bullshit, said he, steam coming out of his ears. What could I, nominally white (that is, Jewish), know about racism? Later, when another trainee raised the question of reciprocal black racism, Mr. Dashiki scoffed at the idea. In his view, for reasons he was unable to articulate to my own satisfaction, only the dominant group in any society can rightly be accused of racism.


When I worked as a word processor jockey in the mid-80s at the biggest law firm in San Francisco, there was one set of rules for me, and another for my black colleagues. For me, taking an 20-minute 15-minute morning or afternoon break was an infraction for which I could count on being written up. For my black colleagues, 45-minute 15-minute breaks were the norm. God forbid the firm's might be accused of discrimination. 

I am mindful that for centuries black people were — let me use the same model here — accused of taking hour breaks when they hadn’t so much as gotten up from their desks. I wouldn’t dispute for a millisecond that that was ghastly. Meanwhile, though, my forebears, far from cheating or otherwise mistreating the descendants of persons kidnapped from Africa and brought to America as slaves, were running around eastern Europe and Russia trying not to be raped or slaughtered in orgies of anti-Semitism. It could very well be that, on coming to this country, my German, Latvian, and Russian forebears bought into their gentile neighbors’ disdain for black folk, but I have to admit that, however appalled I may be by it, I feel pretty close to no responsibility whatever for America’s cruel racism.

By the mid-90s, I’d long since escaped the biggest law firm in San Francisco, and had my first job as a graphic designer, at a pyramid scheme on the other side of the bay, in Oakland. Apparently because someone upstairs felt the department needed greater ethnic diversity, the head of the department hired an utterly clueless woman who'd been born in Vietnam, and this black guy, Dre, who purported to be a photographer, was a spectacularly awful graphic designer —  and had the sanctimonious white Christians who ran the show eating out of his hand in around 36 hours. Did you meet that new, uh, African-American guy in the art department? He grew up in the actual…what was the word he used?…hood. When I came down to tell him the changes I wanted made on that ad, do you know what he said? “Right on”! And he seems to like me! He showed me how to shake hands like a black person today! And do you know what he called me? “Homes”!

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