None of my best friends are Black. For those of you too young to understand that reference, a joke that was common in the 50’s and 60’s used with different ethnicities depending on who the comedian was, went like this. “Some of my best friend’s are Black (Jewish, Italian, etc.) but I wouldn’t let one marry my daughter.” The joke was meant as an ironic comment on bigotry, but as is the case with irony it was rooted in truth as to people’s attitudes. When it came to Black people, or other minorities it was common to hear in conversations something like “So and so” (perhaps a maid or co-worker) is a real fine person, but you know the rest of “them” are:…..(pick you adjective)”. As for me today, seriously, I have no close Black friends and I live in a Gated Community, in a predominantly Jewish area, in a most Southern State. Understanding this is where the “pretensions” of my title comes from. Who am I to opine upon Black people in America would indeed be a fair question to ask and I intend to answer it and then draw upon my experiences to comment on the far larger issue.
My career, lasted for 37 years, working in the field of poverty, disability, welfare, drug addiction, homelessness, child welfare and AIDS. This delineates just some of the areas in which I hold some expertise. I was based in New York City and during that time I worked, mostly alone, in all of the areas of NYC that were publicized in the media as dangerously deadly. For instance, I worked in the area called “Fort Apache” in the South Bronx, depicted in a lousy Paul Newman movie as a place so dangerous that police could not patrol it alone. The climax of this movie was the siege of a police station by marauding Black bands. Now when I worked there during the time of the setting of that racist movie, the area was one of great decay and I would get eerie feelings in my stomach as I walked down long block, surrounded by abandoned high rise buildings, indicative of the decay in that area. My only weapon of protection though was my pen and my notebook, not a Smith and Wesson police special .38 caliber.
No one ever attacked, nor was anyone hostile to this blonde white boy walking the streets. One experience was walking through the huge basement of a block square tenement building, that reminded me of walking through Dante’s inferno because of the obvious misery of those who lived there. It was a series of vignettes of clumps of furniture, people and electric stolen via jury-rigged wiring. At one point I came upon a “shooting gallery” of eight male addicts in the various stages of cooking and injecting heroin. They looked at me, somewhat startled and I raised my hands in a universal gesture and said “Don’t worry, it’s cool” and walked on past.
I would be home at night watching the late news and many of the “if it bleeds, it leads” headlines would reference the dangers of “Fort Apache”. These disconnects between my personal experience with people of color and the “media created” reality, taught me much about the propaganda narrative of our country. This is what I’d like to discuss.
The Agency I worked for 32 of those 37 years was one of the largest (25,000) in NYC and the generic term for it was the “Welfare Department”. In bureaucratic terms it was the NYC Human Resources Administration(HRA). Starting there at the age of 22, I was a boy who had grown up in a privileged Jewish suburb and who had own known few Black people on a personal basis. One of them was the live-in home attendant “Jonny,” who was with us in the last 6 months of my mother’s life. She played a central role in caring for Mom and in keeping it together for my father and I. We lost touch after my mother’s death, as she moved on to another job.
Through college, located in an upscale, WASP Long Island community, I think the only blacks on campus were a couple of athletes. The saving grace for me in one sense was that my parents were very liberal for the time. Their hatred of all prejudice was instilled in me from a very young age. When I started to work for HRA, I was surrounded by not only Black people, but also Latinos and many Gay people. It was the 60’s, beyond its’ middle cusp and the “Department” had represented one of the few places where people of color and different sexual preferences could get jobs that paid decently.
I was first stationed in a Welfare Center fronting on famous 125th Street in Harlem, with the World Famous Apollo Theater two blocks down. The first day that I was to make a field visit as a caseworker, I walked out onto 125th Street (the Broadway of Harlem) and was surrounded by mobs of Black faces and a cacophony of sound coming from the loudspeakers of every other store. The hit song that year was “Respect” by Aretha Franklin and it was like Dorothy’s experience in the Wizard of Oz as it turned into Technicolor and I knew I wasn’t in Kansas anymore. Nobody looked askance at the color of my skin and when by chance eye contact was made on the street, people would smile and say “Good Morning”. This was 1967 and the Civil Rights Movement already had dissension between Dr. King and the Black Power Movement.
As my years in NYC/HRA passed I found myself working with, working for and supervising people of all colors, ethnicity and sexual preferences. I became close social friends with many people of color and those friendships only faded away, after my health forced my retirement and retreat to a Southern Clime more hospitable to someone who was dying. I learned the simple lesson that all of us are share humanity despite cultural and sexual differences. It really depended on the individual person, and not their background as to their nature.
There are no real differences between us that can be described as overall personality characteristics, save that many are often shaped by the poverty of the environment financially, rather than genetically. It was also my working in HRA that made me a “radical” politically, but the nature of my “radical” disposition has little to do with political theory. In my early years in HRA I became involved in the politics of the Caseworker’s Union, SSEU Local 371. For a while I had a small, but secure power base in that Union and my looks and speaking ability made me seem a coming star to those various political groups that were rife within the Union and vying for power. There were at least four communist factions at the time and perhaps 3 socialist factions. There was also a conservative faction and a liberal faction. It was a confusing mish mash of political activism and initially many of them were vying to recruit me. This was problematic, because though I was a fiery and eloquent speaker and had charismatic good looks, at the time I was a young naive man, whose real political outlook was yet to be shaped. I only knew what I didn’t like and that preference came not from my intellect, but from my gut.
My political beliefs were decidedly pot-smoking Hippie and the idea of Marxist analysis bored me silly and seemed utterly ridiculous. I also found that I was one of the few people with a modicum of political power, who hadn’t leveraged it into an easy job away from the Welfare Clients we served. I was out in the streets delivering services and known as an excellent caseworker. The rest of these political activists talked a great game of serving our clients, but couldn’t be bothered to actually do so. I saw that most Marxists were theoreticians interested in political power rather, more interested in serving their egos, rather than serving the people. Yet there were many insights to be had and many lessons to be learned and in that sense it was there that I developed a radical view of this country and the world. That view holds today and can be summarized as: “Most leaders in movements are in it to gratify their egos and political theory always takes the backseat to the sociopathic will to power. True change will only come when we learn to defeat the egoists among us who hold out political theories as solutions to problems”.
Today we are in an age where we have a Black President and I’m coming to see how little a triumph against bigotry that really is. This country was born in racism whether it was against the slaves imported, the Native Americans dispossessed, or those who heritage was Spanish culture, having their lands like Texas stolen from them with those remaining reduced to second class citizenship. For Black people though, the end of slavery was never the end of their oppression, nor the prejudice against them held by so many and reinforced overtly/covertly by the media. “Jim Crow” a milder, yet just as vicious form of slavery nonetheless existed in laws until 1964, but the Civil Rights Act only drove it somewhat underground in the many White supremacist believers and those who harbor hatred based on skin color. The reason this is true, despite so many efforts at ending racism, is that the propaganda of racism against people of color has continued undiminished, except by form in the use of code words and ethnic stereotypes that are so pervasive few Americans even realize it.
Barack Obama has been a grave disappointment to me. As a President he represents what a 1950’s Republican from the North would believe. He has failed to use the office of President as a “bully pulpit” for the ideas he ran on and he has shown that his economic views coincide very well with those investment bankers who supported his candidacy. Worst of all he has continued the reckless worldwide intervention of this country, the War in Afghanistan continues, Iraq is making a return, with Syria next. Presidential power has been expanded rather than checked and we are spied on by the intelligence Agencies of our government. Yet the attacks upon him, which could be justified solely on political grounds, both from the right and from the left, have been focused in code words of racism and are openly tolerated by our corporate media. The “birther movement” was a racist movement, as is the so-called “Tea Party”. They mostly express their racism in code words and vehemently deny that they are racist when called such, but they are racists none the less.
The radical elements of the Conservative movement, who are the people, children and grandchildren of those targeted by Nixon’s Southern Strategy, are racist to the core and unfortunately the spectrum of acceptable political thought in this country has skewed so far to the right that many, like Rand Paul, are thought of as racial moderates.
There are so many aspects of this innate racism that exist in so many areas that it is really hard to keep up with it, especially because those who spew it will so vehemently deny their intent, or insincerely apologize for misspeaking. Nixon’s code word for racism was “criminals.” His minions carefully never talked of Black people, but they sure talked about a “War on Crime” and initiated, but didn’t name the “War on Drugs”. This was all code for “contain Black people, or they will overrun us.” The narrative of the oppressed White person began then, as if Blacks and minorities were being given too many undeserved benefits. The slyly destructive premise of this was that the 1964 Civil Rights Act ended racism for good in this country and so blacks had no reason to demand any more.
So often today if anyone brings up racial and now sexual repression the immediate response from the bigoted chorus is that they are being PC, or they are playing the race (gay) card. The phenomenon of denied, yet overt racism exists in sports as well, since Black athletes are not viewed in the same way as White athletes. The Black athlete must still adopt the strictures given to Jackie Robinson that they can’t express themselves honestly, or emotionally lest they are labeled thugs (the new “nigger”) as was the exemplary athlete and man, Richard Sherman, because he trash talked. Curiously, white athletes who have committed sexual abuse of woman are lionized as leaders on some teams. This was highlighted in the most famous murder case of the last two decades when O.J. Simpson, known as the “whitest” and most beloved by Whites of Black celebrities, went to trial for murdering his wife, only to then morph into the symbol of the black thug, so much so that Time magazine darkened his skin color making him look more ominous on its cover. The jury that acquitted him, due to the Black people on it, was accused of letting him go due to his race, while the problem was that the LAPD and LA prosecutors were incompetent.
In Florida, with its “stand your ground law” we have now seen two famous cases where the Jury acquitted two White men in the murder of two young black men. While many protested the verdict, it is curious how the media bent over backwards to absolve the jury of any guilt. I saw up close and personal so to speak how one famed defender of Civil Rights, believed that George Zimmerman was not being given a fair deal. “Stand Your Ground” is certain States way of saying it is permissible for White people to shoot those thugs (niggers) that “frighten” them. The proof is that in instances when the color of the victim is White, they seem to be ignored and the defendant is convicted of murder, or felonious assault if there is no death. The specor of police murders of unarmed Black people has turned into a more and more common experience.
If I was a liar, or intent on burnishing my credentials as a wonderful human being, I would pretend to you that I am not only color blind, but that I lack prejudice in general, but I’m not here to lie to you. There have been my own times when the irrational fear of black people occurred. In one such instance, I was in alone at night in a NYC Subway car, except for six young Black men who were all wearing variations on the “hoodie” outfits. I felt a frisson of fear until a few minutes into the discussion it became apparent that they were students at Columbia University returning to their dorms. Yet on a gut level, I had reacted with the fear that the American propaganda machine has instilled in us all. When as a teen I had read the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church, that my Catholic friend has received at his religious school, I have since disliked that Church and its leaders, for their puerile and now shown hypocritical sexual rules. Impure thoughts are a sin and so never be alone with a girl since you will get impure thoughts and thus be sinning casting your afterlife in doubt. I am definitely prejudiced against Mormons, Scientologists and Fundamentalists of all stripes. We as humans can’t grow up free of one kind of prejudice, or another. What we can do though is we can learn to recognize it in ourselves, take ownership of it and thereby move beyond it. More importantly we can work to ensure that despite people’s personal prejudices, our society becomes prejudice free in terms of the treatment of all people. A daunting and at times I wonder if impossible task.
This is essentially an essay that I thought of and wrote from the gut without an outline or sense of where it would lead. I have done a researched piece I wrote awhile back, that concretely shows where I’m coming from. It shows what I and many others see as today’s version of Jim Crow, which is every bit as pernicious and evil. It is titled: The Incarceration of Black Men in America