Friday, March 30, 2012


It Seems to be Down to Poverty

(Image: Frank Gorshin as Bele on Star Trek)

Exactly! It's about the economy, stupid, it's about the classes, it IS about class warfare, but the bastards don't want us to believe that. So here we are, again. I swear, we could have talked about prejudice any month we wanted and there would have been some totally worthless piece of violent hatred perpetrated against someone here in these United States. And it's not going to change any time soon. To think that some of us actually believed we were progressing after the civil rights struggle 60 years ago! Vigilance must be never ending.

So on this final post for March, I have to admit that I'm filled with trepidation because of my own prejudice and an upcoming social obligation. If you've been following one of TV's greatest current shows, "Justified", based on an Elmore Leonard story, you realize that Harlan County, Kentucky is filled with oxycontin dealing semi-crazy power hungry cracker halfwits, the kind of people who don't think twice about serving up a healthy beat down or worse to anyone who might be crazy enough to think differently than them, disrupt their business, or upset the Dixie Mafia (do they go into Arkansas?) in any way. They don't take kindly to outsiders, especially the kind of toities who wander in from one of the coasts or any big city for that matter. And of course, this depiction must spread to the whole damn South, right?

Well in a coupla weeks, for the first time, I'm heading to a very small town in Arkansas for a family wedding. Despite my ability to blend in physically with the locals, I only hope certain beliefs and or comments can be contained for the duration of my stay. From what I've seen of the South portrayed in Justified, I'll be one step shy of an ass-whoopin' at any given moment. Wish me well and keep me in your heart.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Conversations/March: Prejudice II

Is it Not so for You?
(see end of previous post)

(Image: The Hate Monger by Jack Kirby)

Happy St. Patrick's Day, from one Italian-Irish-American to anyone reading this!

Somewhere in the mid-nineties, while working at The Sacramento Bee, we were obligated to take a two-day diversity training course. This particular course was unlike any I have ever taken. The trainer was Asian, and I wish I could remember his name. It was a hugely eye-opening experience, probably best summarized by an exercise he administered within the first couple of hours. My class was hugely diversified, which represented The Bee at that time. My own department, Customer Service, where I was one of the people responsible for hiring, probably had a 45% "minority" workforce. The newspaper in general was pretty mixed, perhaps with the exception of the news room and the very white (and male) members of upper management (what a surprise, right?) I suppose my "willingness" to hire all types of people had its roots with my parents, as these things usually do. Despite growing up in such a very white neighborhood, I don't remember either one of them ever making a "racist" statement in my presence, and while we disagreed about many things, civil rights wasn't one of them. (I think I was also "lucky" to have spent my 9th thru 12th grades in a VERY mixed student population.) The racial diversity of people in my department also spilled over to how they chose to present themselves. At first, one of my managers was dead set against tattoos, piercings, dyed hair, etc., but luckily for many of our staff, I was able to convince him that these "peculiar" fashion choices did not necessarily indicate a poor employee. By the time I left the paper, the department looked more like a collection of record store employees than a white collar call center.

Anyway, back to that exercise in our diversity class. As I recall, there were about 25 of us in the class, close to half were black, and all of us from a very mixed bag of jobs/pay scales/etc. The Asian instructor was incredible in that he managed to convince most of us that we could freely speak in the class about some of the most sensitive issues that had shaped our lives. He asked the class for a show of hands for who had been stopped, at some time in their life, in a car or on foot, by the police. Just about everybody raised their hand. Then he asked how many people felt "frightened/intimidated" (he probably used a different word) when that happened. Virtually everyone who was not black pulled their hand down. He then went to each of the people with their hand still in the air and asked them to discuss their perspectives on this issue, and it was a real eye opener. Their stories about the police and that person's relationship to them, and their family's relationship to them, were quite a surprise to the non-black "students". And this was how the whole class proceeded, as he skillfully got us to "reveal" the cultural events that shaped our perspectives, and it was amazing how different the various "races" in that class looked at things.

So today, I still work in a very diverse work environment, but my friends are mainly white like me. My son married an incredible Hispanic woman. My neighborhood is mixed: it's mainly white, but includes Hispanics, Asians, and has in the past included blacks. About half the households on my block are gay couples, mainly white women. I think it is paramount that for almost anyone to begin to grapple with prejudice, there's gotta be some contact with different types of people. I'm very much for integration, though not so sure about "forced" integration. But if it's not "forced", how can it possibly occur?

Your thoughts?

(Spence replies)

Actually, the "intimidation" factor you relate from the nineties diversity session was an eye-opener for me.

I thought immediately of John Howard Griffin's book Black Like Me, and how profiling emerges between then and now. Questions leap out: Does the current Trayvon Martin case reflect an utter lack of change since your session? A CNN piece seems to say so. Would that author's appearance invariably produce a sense of threat in whites, particularly in a dark setting? But, further, what does it mean that most of us probably need to know that the victim was black before we feel like we _really_ know the story? 

Then, locally, why do stories like  this (hooded sweatshirts) and this (Onesto, Reyes...) and this (gang members) provoke such a weary here-we-go-again from the middle class where I live? Are the suspects somehow self-profiling, and have they always been? And what would happen if they got plunked into my neighborhood instead of a dense, decaying, and dark neighborhood near the strawberry fields or the Boardwalk?

And why does the Toulouse gunman Toulouse gunman apparently feel a similar sense of threat, but react to it more terrifyingly? 
Is there somehow a codified relationship between, say, these identifiers these identifiers , turbans, and tattoos that might be seen on the average black or brown NFL or NBA player?

I guess the good news is that, in contrast to Griffin's experience, that intimidation or exclusion is much more likely to be associated with police, as part of semi-sanctioned profiling, than it is to be with a clerk in a store, or a server in a restaurant, or a voting registrar. But even where the "markers" - tattoos, hoodies, shaved heads, even oversized jerseys or head scarves - don't effectively invite the stereotypes, it appears we have a long way to go. And I suspect that enforced integration might not be the answer, simply because it seems to be down to poverty in as many cases as not - the people with those looks just tend not to either be able to afford more racially monolithic middle class neighborhoods, or want nothing to do with them.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Senior year, high school. I guess nowadays, I should stipulate a very public school. The previous summer, for reasons that are inexplicable to me, my friends decided it would be funny to start calling me a wop. I'm not sure how they knew I was half Italian; my name wouldn't have told them because that particular heritage came from my mother's side. I don't suppose it matters; it wasn't a secret, it wasn't like I tried to keep it from anyone. The taunts weren't constant, but often enough to sting. There was one person in particular who seemed to get a big kick out of it. He was Irish, maybe full Irish from his name, maybe his glee had something to do with the way the Irish had been treated.

In any case, it was a peculiar feeling. When I was in kindergarten and 1st grade, I was fat, not obese, but hefty, and I can remember being made fun of then. The only thing that saved me was a girl in my class who was even bigger, so she got the brunt of the comments. Then in 2nd grade or thereabouts, I slimmed down, and it all stopped, at least for me. I guess we were the main targets people could actually see, as I grew up in a VERY white neighborhood. As a matter of fact, for years there was a clause in the homeowner contracts saying the houses couldn't be sold to blacks. At an elementary school reunion I attended a few years ago, the sole Chinese student in the class told us a few stories about what his family went through growing up in our hood - ugly, despicable stories, all unknown to the rest of us.

When I was in the 9th grade, the lily white junior high school I attended went through a big change. The previous summer, some kids had burned down their own junior high, so the students had to be bussed to various other schools. This caused a huge influx of a new, extremely diverse student population. This turned out to be advantageous, because the high school I was going to attend the following year was one of the most diverse in the city, so this preliminary mixing of the cultures was an introduction to a world I didn't really know or understand. Despite the lack of different cultures in my hood, I guess because of the way I was raised, I never really thought about "looking down" or discriminating against other people. It wasn't unknown to me (this was, after, the Sixties), but I tended to side with underdogs in any case, and definitely sided with the civil rights movement.

Anyway, one beautiful October day around lunchtime during that senior year mentioned above, I had taken one "wop" too many. I was incensed, embarrassed for myself AND my mother AND my grandparents AND I suppose my pride was taking a beating. I wasn't exactly a fighting kind of guy, but I had tried "reasoning" with my tormentor, and he just didn't get it. So I took the pre-packaged pie-like dessert treat out of my sack lunch from home, throwing away the rest of the food. I went into the cafeteria and smeared the thing with katchup. Then I went to the quad where the guy was having lunch with a bunch of friends, most of whom I knew. Without hesitating, I walked toward him; I could see his smile start to turn into something else as he realized he didn't really know what was coming. I smashed the ketchup smeared pie in his face as hard as I could and walked away. I believe the quad suddenly became very quiet, but I didn't really know because I was shaking and too oblivious. From that point on, he left me alone.

So: have you ever been the "victim" of prejudice? Or, conversely, have you ever been the one to perpetrate the prejudice? When did you first realize that prejudice was rampant in this country? And what do you think is the state of race relations now? Can I get any broader with these questions??? Feel free to be as narrowly focused as you wish!


My school experience was almost completely suburban or rural, and running through the high school yearbook it's hard to find someone who seems Jewish or Asian, let alone someone who is black or brown. And the lower grades were much the same; all Anglo, not much sense of the difference of lineage, although people were aware that, for instance, the Sbaffi family in my rural town were perhaps a generation or two out of Italy, I never heard discussion that wasn't in a self-deprecating mode, Mike Sbaffi maybe offering an Italian Joke. 

On the other hand, especially in that town, Polish jokes and Irish jokes were popular, if invariably trumped by some racy or scatological element. And given that I had at that age an unfortunate resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman, it was an advantage to have a stable of jokes to rely on. And given that my father ran a bar, it seemed like jokes were fairly easy to come by. And further, I suppose it's not unlikely that in the midst of the jokes I spouted to curry favor were some that offended someone I may not have even known was Polish, though I would have desisted in humiliation if I had been called on it. I'm pretty sure I offered an Irish joke to a boy with a speech impediment who happened to be Irish and had only me as a friend, and tend to think he didn't feel belittled - partly perhaps because he was too young to drink, and I think they all involved drinking.

A telling episode there, though, was probably my first exposure to actual bigotry. A rumor spread through town one summer that a black family was moving into a decrepit house near the substation. Several people who never came to the bar showed up expressly to advertise their determination to pack up and leave the next day should it be true. It turned out not to be. But I probably noticed from that point that my mother especially tended only to use denigrating, and in today's terms, emphatically politically incorrect terms for almost every possible ethnicity that could be imagined.

It was in college, and not before, that it became a point of contention. I had met a black girl named Ashley, the second black I had spent some time getting to know (the first being an exceedingly tall and scholarly looking boyfriend of one of the gaggle of Catholic school girls that frequented a card-playing group in the cafeteria.) She was cheerful, thoughful and kind, and we talked about music and religious kooks between us and among a group of six or seven who tended to hang out on the quad in good weather. No one at school would have dreamed of saying anything unkind of or to her. But my mention of her to my mother was enough to get a running argument going which was part of the larger narrative of rebellion and disaffection that were the themes of my approach to twenty. It didn't matter that there was no romance involved for her - it just wasn't appropriate. 

But that said, I ended up spending most of my life in almost exclusively white company, and apart from rampant local racial profiling of Latinos based predictably on a continuous parade of stories about gang violence in our county, I have continued to have the sense of bigotry as a remote phenomenon. Something you see on the news.

Is it not so for you?