We’re All Racists in Racist America
I come from a long line of liberals.
My great grandfather ran a dry goods store in Waco, Texas and, according to family lore, was the only store owner on Austin Avenue, the main drag, to allow front-door access to the colored people, as the African-Americans were then called by many of the whites. One day in 1933, my mom, who summered in Waco with her grandparents, came by the store and found that Trim, Clarence Trim, an African-American and the only store employee in an otherwise family-run business, wasn’t around. When she asked, my great grandfather Frank Adelman, her grandfather, told her it was Juneteenth, the day in 1865 when the “colored people” in Texas learned about the Emancipation Proclamation (two years after it had passed). It’s a day to celebrate, he said.
When Frank died the next year (three days shy of Juneteenth), hundreds from the Black community came to the cemetery to pay their respects. There were two obituaries, one in the white newspaper and one in the Waco Messenger, the Black newspaper, and the family displayed both side by side on the counter in the store.
My grandfather Sidney Pines (Frank’s son-in-law), a white Jew like the rest of my family, was a member of the NAACP in Dallas. He would host NAACP meetings at his home in the white University Park neighborhood, and my grandmother Edith, Frank’s daughter, liked to tell about watching the neighbors peek from behind closed blinds as the cars parked on the street and the colored people went into their house.
My Uncle Is, Frank’s son, was an active liberal all his life, and when he got rich in the movie theater business spent a lot of money on liberal causes, to the point where he landed on Nixon’s second enemies list. Being an Adelman, he was at the top of the list, at least in the alphabetical LA Times version, and the day it was published was a day of great pride for our family.
My dad was raised by socialists. My siblings and I went with our parents to protest marches. My son has been going to Black Lives Matter protests in New York City. My wife and I have been participating as much as we feel comfortable in a COVID-19 high-risk category. We were and are proud liberals.
Are we racist? Yes. Everyone in America is racist. You don’t grow up in a racist society and not absorb it. That’s how culture works. In our case, it’s literally written into our Constitution:
Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three-fifths of all other Persons.
“All other persons.” In one of the many compromises that allowed slavery to continue in the newly forming nation, the words slave or slavery were substituted, not unlike the way “law and order” has been code for the violent maintenance of racial “order” in America.
We’re all racists in America. Whether you’re a flaming liberal or a white supremacist, whether you’re Black, brown or white, you’ve been taught the stereotypes and story lines that keep us apart, that teach us prejudice, that play on our fears and maintain a power structure that puts some people over others. Those who say they’re color-blind are just blind to the unconscious bias that is a direct result of the conscious bias against people of African descent that has been part of the history of this continent since shortly after white Europeans arrived.
We’re all racists in America. An African-American man who works as a chief inclusion and diversity officer at a big U.S. corporation told me he’d taken a racial attitude test that revealed a bias against African-Americans. Can’t be, he said. Took it again, same result. In her documentary 13th, Ava DuVernay told us that during the war on drugs that started in the 70s, Black Americans were not immune to the demonization of Blacks at the hands of this “law and order” campaign.
In a conversation with my mom during the eruption of protests that followed the murder of George Floyd (the video of which left me with one word: not racism, which was undoubtedly at work, but sadism), she admitted some or her own prejudices and told me this story about her mother. In Dallas in the 1970s, Edith, aka Nana, volunteered to read stories to the children at a mixed raced kindergarten. At first, she confessed to my mother, she didn’t feel comfortable around the Black kids. A year later, when she’d gotten to know all the children, she didn’t feel that way anymore.
Racism is not inevitable. It is not inherent to human nature. It’s taught, the way culture is taught, in ways clear and hidden. What is natural among humans, descended as we are from earlier primates, is determining who is inside and who is outside our various circles: nuclear family, extended family, community (whether religious, ethnic, political or other) and nation. Where we draw those circles is something we are taught. And then as we learn more, we choose to accept what we’re taught or reject it. Most of us accept the teachings we receive without much thought. It’s what we do, it’s who we are. It’s part of our identity – another part of human nature, the need to understand ourselves and how we fit in with others. The need to belong.
Some of us are taught, or learn for ourselves, that the circles we draw are invented boundaries. To some, all life is their life. They would no sooner kill a fly than they would a sister.
My wife Deena recently told me a story about Delia, the African-American woman who lived in her house five days a week when she was growing up. Delia kept house and cooked, eventually teaching Deena many southern specialties, and when Dee, the youngest, was little and her mother got busy launching a career, Delia took care of her, keeping her company when Dee was lonely. Delia often fixed and served Deena’s favorite dessert, My-T-Fine chocolate pudding. Once, in the company of her mother and one or two older sisters, Deena exclaimed, “Delia is as sweet as chocolate pudding.” The others gasped, hushing her up. She had no idea why. No one explained. Racism is taught in ways hidden and clear.
What maintains it? Fear. Ignorance. Anger. Forces that are caused by and cause separateness. What will destroy it? Fearlessness. Understanding. Anger.
Anger can be blind, and blinding. It can also be purposeful, with a view beyond our own hurt and fear. How do we know, when it comes to the anger we feel, if it’s one or the other? We just have to know, to look at ourselves, our nation, and not look away, at who we are and how we got here. Then we can begin to change our minds – both in the sense of the hard-wiring of our brains and in the sense of deciding that we’ll do something different. People can do that. Sometimes we call it a change of heart.
My great grandfather Frank, born Faivel in Lithuania, may not have been racist. He wasn’t born here. He came from a place where he and his people suffered under the knee of the Russian Empire. In the United States of America, a place where everyone must have seemed foreign to him, perhaps he had a natural sympathy toward the most oppressed segment of the new world he was part of.
I was raised with this sympathy. One of the first short stories I wrote, in 6th grade, was about a boy who wakes up one school day to find he has Black skin. “Not like a crayon. I was a Negro.” And (warning! more virtue signaling!) in the 90s, when I lost out on a plum copy desk job to an affirmative action candidate, I was fine with it. I was glad for the chance to put my money where my liberal mouth is. And yet I can’t deny my part in this racist circle that is the U.S.A.
Neither can I deny the reality of white privilege. When I first heard the term, my initial thought was – let there be equal Black privilege! Let there be universal human privilege! But privilege means benefits for some at the expense of others. In a society of haves and have-nots, racism has worked as a tool to stack the ranks of the have-nots with people of color. That must end if we are ever to realize the humanistic, Enlightenment-era dreams of our white forefathers and exorcise the evils this nation was also founded on. I believe we must and I believe we will.
Am I an optimist? Yes. I believe that Martin Luther King, Jr. was right when he said the arc of history is long but bends toward justice. Further, I believe it’s an inevitable part of the course of human evolution that we will raise our aggregate consciousness. Just like the physical universe expands, so does our understanding. It doesn’t go in straight lines, but over time, a long time, it goes in one direction. I believe this evolution is a requirement for our survival on a crowded, increasingly interconnected planet. I believe that in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, which has inspired me and lots of others to speak up, we are witnessing a step in this inevitable direction.
I believe that one of the most important steps we can take is understanding and accepting this simple, unfortunate truth: we’re all racists in racist America. Only by accepting it can we begin to change it.
About the Author
Jon Fried is a New Jersey-based writer, musician and videographer. This is his first published piece of non-fiction. His short stories have appeared in various journals and zines, and he is working on a series of novels based on some of colorful characters in his family tree. With his wife, Deena Shoshkes, he co-founded an indie rock band called The Cucumbers, which has released many albums. His current musical project is The Campfire Flies, which released its debut album in 2019. His dayjob is in video production. For more details, visit his blog, Guide for the Unguidable, and click below for his website.