Jim Raftus: Have we become too complacent about racism?
Published: December 08, 2014 01:00 AM
BY JIM RAFTUS
Invariably, amid the heated arguments surrounding the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and 12-year-old Tamir Rice, many statistics will be used to justify a position — percentage of crimes committed by blacks, ratio of white police officers vs. minority population in a community, etc.
Here is a more personal statistic that causes me to deeply ponder. In my 68 years, most spent in Rhode Island, never has a black person been invited to a home I lived in. Conversely, I’ve only once been invited into a black home. It was in high school after a pickup basketball game. The visit lasted 15 minutes.
How is this statistically possible? Am I an anomaly?
My father, Leo, was born in Dorchester in 1910. At that time it was a mostly Irish and Jewish enclave. He moved to Pawtucket at the age of 12. By then, Dorchester was “transitioning,” including the arrival of black residents. My father was a good, kindly man. Everyone said so, but he was weighted down by his background.
Our few conversations about race were lower-case “All in the Family.” My father was not nearly as bigoted as Archie and I was not quite the far-left-leaning hippie of Meathead.
Dad once innocently told a story about a street fair when he was a boy in Dorchester where they played a game called “Hit the N—— on the Head.” It consisted of throwing a wet sponge at the top of young black boys’ heads protruding from holes in a cardboard rectangle. When I objected, he said the black kids were paid a nickel and gladly participated.
Late in life he made, if not friends, at least good acquaintances with a couple of black golfers at the old six-hole Silver Spring Golf Course, in East Providence.
While I was growing up in Pawtucket in the 1950s and ’60s, we Northerners clucked our tongues and shook our heads at the awful bombing of the church in Birmingham, Ala. We railed against Police Commissioner Bull Connor unleashing police dogs against blacks and bemoaned the murder of civil-rights workers Andrew Goodman, James Chaney and Michael Schwerner.
Those evil, racist Southerners, we thought, can’t make peace with the blacks. Meanwhile, most blacks who migrated north continued to be herded, red-lined, into specific urban neighborhoods with poor educational opportunities and neglected infrastructures.
On my first day of basic training in Columbia, S.C., in 1968, the blacks in my barracks, upon hearing me speak, nicknamed me “Irish.” “Irish” I was for eight weeks, and I got along fine with the blacks who were, mostly, from New York City. My best friend, however, turned out to be named Moses McCutcheon, whose family worked a very small cotton farm not 15 miles from the base.
Blacks, like whites, come with a wide spectrum of pigmentation. Moses was the darkest black person I have ever met. With his Southern drawl and my Rhode Island accent, I’m not sure how we even understood each other, but we bonded.
One day the New York City blacks started razzing Moses about our friendship. He quietly, but decisively, pressed one of the agitators against a locker. Moses was short in stature but hard work on the family farm quickly turns a boy into a man. The harassment stopped.
Several weeks later, I was on a bus heading back to base after a trip to Columbia. The passengers were predominately black soldiers. As we headed toward the final few stops, a chant of “Kill whitey” began from, ironically, the back of the bus. When the bus made the next stop, the many blacks exiting threw punches at the few whites in their seats. Although I was not really hurt, the incident made me mentally replay my race discussions with my father. It took me a while to regain my quiet civil-rights advocacy.
Now retired, a full life in suburbia behind me, I see racial strife re-emerging, and I worry and question. Despite great gains by some blacks, politically and economically, far too many have been left behind. The progress of the 1960s and 1970s seems to have stalled for all but a select few.
Have we all been complicit? Have we been satisfied as long as the “problems” remained in Roxbury, East St. Louis, Harlem and South Providence? And the core question: Why have the races not truly more readily and happily mixed? Are the difference insurmountable?
My final question is to myself. Have I been all rhetoric? Too complacent, standing off to the side?
I would love to find Moses McCutcheon again. I would invite Moses into my Cumberland home.
Sixty-eight years is too long to wait.
Jim Raftus (firstname.lastname@example.org), an occasional contributor, is a retired marketing executive who lives in Cumberland.