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“My father was a racist”


My father was a racist, and so were all his friends. This was back in the Bronx, in the 1950s. We lived in a crowded apartment building on a crowded street in a crowded borough. All of the men were Jews, the children of immigrants from European shtetls. None were professionals. They had “frayed white collar” jobs in sales, accounting, mid-management, or they were small shopkeepers, “petite bourgeois.” They all resented not having been able to bust out of the tenements into the suburbs. Despite their outward air of easy bonhomie, despite the laughing and wisecracking at their gin rummy games, they were deeply resentful of the course their lives had—or had not—taken. They needed some “other” to blame, and they found it in Negroes.

I use that word, which was the official terminology of the time, but it’s not the word my father and his friends used, which also began with the letter “n.” Sometimes, they used the Yiddish word “schvartze,” which literally meant “black,” but had a pejorative edge. I don’t mean to say my father and his friends were obsessed with race, the way so many Republicans are today. It wasn’t uppermost in their minds. But the prejudice was always there.

It wasn’t just the men, it was the women. I remember when an aunt and uncle of mine finally had a little financial success, and moved to an entry-level neighborhood in the suburbs. It was mostly populated by other Jews and by Italians. Trim little ranch-style homes, front gardens, garages for the cars. No crime. One day we were visiting. I was about nine. My aunt was angry about something. I listened. A family of Negroes had moved in down the block, the first blacks in the neighborhood. “The schvartzes are coming,” my aunt complained. “Property values will fall.” I didn’t quite understand what she meant. Shortly thereafter, she convinced her husband, my uncle, the breadwinner, to move again, to a bigger house in a solidly white neighborhood.

My mother was a complicated person. She’d grown up in the South—not the Confederacy south, but the state of Oklahoma, which had been Indian territory during the Civil War, and did not, so far as I knew, have an historical reputation for slavery or racism. I don’t know if my mother, as a little girl, had known any Negroes; I wish I’d asked while she was still alive. But she was a lot more tolerant than most of the other Jewish moms I knew in the Bronx. She was one of the few women in that time and place to have a college education—a teaching degree from the University of Oklahoma. She certainly had broader intellectual interests that most of the housewives on our block, the mothers of my friends, who were simple people who thrived on running their households, and on gossip. Mom was one of only two mothers I knew of, among my scores of friends, who had a job. She taught in a junior high school in Spanish Harlem.

Her students were largely Puerto Rican, and she loved them. I remember how she smiled as she told me stories about them. She wished, she said, that I was as nice to her as her Puerto Ricans. I was proud of my mother, because I knew that the men—my father and his friends—didn’t think much more highly of Puerto Ricans than they did of Negroes. At the same time, my mother let it be known that her black students were not among her favorites. It wasn’t so much anything she said, as what she didn’t say. She never told me how nice her Negro students were, and I thought: If they were nice, she would say so.

I knew hardly any Negroes at all. The Bronx was pretty segregated in the 1950s. There were black neighborhoods, but they were across the tracks, and seldom did the twain meet. In my public elementary school we had a few black kids. I don’t remember any animosity toward them from anyone, but I don’t recall any warmth either. We had a young black couple, Norris and Christine, who lived in our building, in a dark apartment tucked away in the back of the building’s dank, creepy basement, where the storage rooms and boiler room were located. Norris was the building handyman, while Christine cleaned apartments. We kids all liked Norris and Christine. Norris drank a lot and told me that he consumed three glasses of bacon fat each day to protect his stomach from all the booze. Christine was pretty and kind. But looking back, I think Christine also was angry. It wasn’t anything she did or said, just a feeling on my part.

I think my father and his friends were not so different from many other Jews of that era. It’s odd to think that so many of their relatives in Europe had just come through the Holocaust. The memory of the camps and the deaths was very heavy in the air around New York City Jews in the immediate post-War years. This is one reason why my generation of Jews, the Baby Boomers, so often became early adherents of the Civil Rights Movement. But our parents did not. They should have understood all there was to understand about bigotry. But instead, they complained about schvartzes. My mother remained a solid Democrat all her life and was still volunteering at her county Democratic headquarters when, at the age of 90, she died. But I wonder if my father, had he lived to this day, might have been a Trumper.

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