The Race We All Can Win
Racial tension is nothing new. It has certainly been around long enough for mankind to have learned that nothing good comes from it, but we’re not quite there yet. Friction between peoples has too often resulted in ethnic and class riots. In my lifetime there have been domestic major race-related riots in Boston, Detroit, Buffalo, Milwaukee, Newark, Orangeburg, Kansas City, Chicago, Louisville, Washington, D.C., Miami, Brooklyn, Cincinnati, Oakland, Ferguson, Baltimore, and earlier this year in Salt Lake City, to name a few. Even college campuses and presidential campaigns have not been spared the occasional disruption. As a young boy I witnessed the local turmoil fueled by the 1965 Watts riots that occurred a hundred and twenty miles from my home. And I resided in Los Angeles during the disturbance in 1992.
Every one of these events was triggered by a specific incident or was the culmination of years of unrest and dissatisfaction within different factions of society. There are more peaceful ways folks can express themselves but when prejudice promotes rash and violent acts the knee-jerk reaction of pissed-off people wishing to vent in public includes taking it to the streets. Rioting demands awareness of issues that sometimes seem forgotten and are routinely relegated to the back-burner. We fail to respect each other as equals with valid emotions.
My first encounter comprising a racial element took place when I was 9 years old. As a kid I would roam with my friends through the surrounding neighborhoods in search of things to do: visit Wagner’s Hobby Shop, grab a burger at Dee-Gee’s, run slot-cars next door to Woolworth’s, find relief from the air conditioning inside De Falco’s market, play soldier or cowboys-and-Indians in the nearby fields and canyons, trek to the gas station for cold drinks from the soda machine, or just ride our bikes around seeking mischief.
I grew up in a neighborhood dominated by whites except for one Filipino family on the next block. Everyone got along fabulously, no ill-will at all. One day, a black family moved in across the street and, suddenly, a few long-time residents began quietly freaking out. My friends and I didn’t really think about those grown-up issues but I did start noticing more “for sale” signs cropping up in the surrounding neighborhoods. Soon, even families on my block joined the “white flight.” I didn’t understand it at the time and I still don’t really get it.
I had plenty of long-time Caucasian friends and got along fine with the Negro kids new to my block. When I was 8 or 9, during a solo foray through the streets of a nearby area I was accosted by a larger black kid. He seemed to have a problem with my being white and he was not content to let me pass. I was a small kid and he was overweight and the thought of a physical altercation with him held no attraction for me; getting the crap beat out of me was not my idea of fun. But my presence bothered him enough so that after verbally berating me for my skin color, he turned me around, grabbed me in a bear hug, and squeezed the bejesus out of me as he lifted me off the ground.
I quickly became anxious about the situation and, probably from watching too much TV and with little consideration I automatically extended my arm forward and then brought it back with as much force as I could muster, jabbing my elbow into his mid-section. I didn’t like hurting anyone but I was caught up in moment and knew not what else to do. With a grunt he dropped me and I probably hit the ground running as I had no interest in his likely response. That was my earliest introduction to racial tension. I saw him one more time after that but he opted to leave me alone and keep his distance which was alright with me. That was the only negative “racial” experience I encountered as a youngster. And, thankfully, a subsequent occurrence about a year later more than balanced that out.
In 1965, the Watts riot in Los Angeles sparked civil unrest in Logan Heights, a neighborhood not far from my own. I was unaware of this and was out riding my bike searching for my buddies to hang with. At one point a few of my black friends rode up to me and asked me what I thought I was doing out by myself. I didn’t understand the meaning behind their query so they explained to me what was going on. They suggested, for my own safety, that I get off the streets and then they escorted me back to my home. At the time I thought it was kind of funny but in later years I realized how fortunate I had been that they cared enough to provide safe transport. As an adult I retain profound feelings about that day.
Fast-forward to 1992 and the Los Angeles riots following the not-guilty verdict for police officers charged with excessive force in the Rodney King incident. At that time I lived in Hollywood. I could walk outside my home toward the corner three houses down and look up Wilcox Avenue to Sunset and Hollywood Boulevards and see the smoke rising from the burning buildings. I saw groups of people up, down, and across the street leaving in their cars only to return a while later with merchandise looted from the nearby Sears department store and mom-and-pop businesses along Santa Monica Boulevard. Some folks made several trips and came back with televisions and small appliances as well as clothes, tools, food, and a hodgepodge of consumer goods. I was astounded at the mindset of those involved.
A curfew was finally mandated allowing only those on their way to work or who were having an emergency to be out driving on the streets so there was very little traffic. I would occasionally witness school bus-full s of police traveling between precincts followed by a phalanx of motorcycle cops; it was surreal. I was employed then in Inglewood at the Hollywood Park (horse) racetrack and my drive to and from work had never been easier. It was fascinating to drive by all the burnt-out businesses and witness people still going in and taking whatever they could carry out.
On the way to work one morning I noticed a guy standing by the side of the road dressed the same as me. Turns out we were both pari-mutuel clerks at the track and wore, therefore, wearing the same “uniform” of black slacks and white collared shirt. Public transportation, his usual means to work, had been suspended so I pulled over, confirmed that he was a Park employee, and offered him a ride to work. Once there, he asked me if I could give him a ride home after work and we made arrangements to meet later, which we did.
I drove him to his home and he appreciated the ride by asking me into his place for a few minutes. I was in no hurry so I agreed. As we walked to his apartment we passed several of his black neighbors who looked at me like I was crazy; what’s this white dude doing here anyway? My escort noticed that I was becoming a little nervous so he bade me relax telling those nearby that I was with him and it was cool. It was one of the strangest feelings I’ve ever known.
What immediately caught my attention inside were several boxes of booze stacked around his living room. I guessed they had been liberated from a local liquor store which he confirmed with a nod and a smile. He offered me a drink in appreciation for my having given him rides to and from work so I took a seat and had a glass of whiskey. We drank and discussed current events, the relatively quiet work day we’d just finished, and our best guesses about what the immediate future. I finished my drink and got up to leave and he arose with me, insisting that he accompany me back to my car. I did not refuse and was thankful for his meaningful offer. I was reminded of that previous circumstance in my youth where my friends of color had displayed sincere concern for my welfare; I caught myself smiling on the drive back to Hollywood.
I’ve been fortunate to have been acquainted over the years with many non-white friends and co-workers whose company I have usually enjoyed. Some were among the most honest and fair-minded people I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and all of them related to me with respect and courtesy. Like the majority of people everywhere from China to Mexico and the Middle East through Russia and beyond, they were primarily concerned with securing a peaceful existence without having to suffer bias against them of their families.
I don’t like the “N” word; I know it is just a word and only as strong as the connotation underlying its usage. I realize many black folks say it often as a term of endearment, in place of words like “brother” or “bud” or “dude”. But I grew up hearing it purposefully employed in derogatory ways by people I went to school with or worked with and I have never been comfortable hearing it in any context. The word conjures up sentiments of bigotry and derision but I suppose that’s just my personal problem. I understand I have absolutely no right to be insulted by its use… but I am. Maybe some people believe there is justification for using it but I am uncomfortable hearing it; to me, it alludes to a divisive way of thinking and acting, and I see nothing productive coming from it.
I do recall one black man, a character who had quickly achieved a pseudo-celebrity at one time. Admittedly, his idiotic driving demanded the attention of the authorities and once he had been pulled over things went downhill fast. Everyone involved somehow screwed up that morning but this guy suffered unjustifiable victimization beyond accountability. Damning video footage had been mercilessly publicized by the media attracting a larger and larger audience. The ensuing civil disorder ultimately widened cultural chasms, amplified existing misunderstanding and suspicion, and caused an exponential explosion of mistrust between races. The situation became a cultural phenomenon of the worst kind and this fella just wished for everyone to get past it.
He did present an unforgettable moment: I watched as he was interviewed on television looking a little shell-shocked and distraught but appearing openly concerned about how the situation was “making it horrible for the older people and the kids.” He seemed to speak from his heart as he posed the most important question relevant to all of us in the simplest way possible when he implored, “Can we all get along? Can we get along?”
That ideal is still pending progress despite the time that has passed. Stronger, more sincere efforts are needed to establish a safer world. We each must try harder.
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Distant Fires: rhoman94.wordpress.com
0:18 of Wisdom
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