What’s Going On?

I was born at the tail end of the 1950’s, and grew up in a completely white Irish and Italian neighborhood. There were no blacks in my elementary school, or on any of the sports teams I played on. I didn’t personally meet a single African-American until I went to high school. My parents watched the news every night, so I saw the cities burning in the summer riots. But beyond some vague fears of race riots in New York, it really didn’t mean much to me.

My introduction to racial reality came when I went to Cardinal Spellman High School in the Bronx.  I met African-American boys and girls for the first time, but it didn’t really strike me in any way, because I thought they were just like me.  But one day, my freshman religion teacher, Mrs. Mary Doyle, showed us a film of some of the civil rights marches in the South. I was appalled to see the police using fire hoses and setting dogs on the marchers. One of the wise guys in the class made a smart remark, probably something racist.  I was shocked, and can vividly remember to this day, watching Mrs. Doyle become so upset at the boy’s callousness that she started to cry.

That was the first time I realized that something was going on with race in America, but I didn’t really have a clue what it was.

During the rest of my high school and college times, I came to know a number of African-Americans personally. But I never became friends with any of them. I was unknowingly living a segregated life.

In 1981 I went to law school, but I followed at a distance the ugly fight over housing and school desegregation in my home town of Yonkers. I read the news stories, and even saw video of some of the public meetings, and was disgusted by the open racism that was being expressed.  Yet it still did not have a real impact on my life.  I still knew very few African-Americans, I had no idea what life was like in their neighborhoods and families.  I was still living a segregated life.

After law school, I became a prosecutor in Manhattan.  For the first few years, I worked on street crime cases — thefts, assaults, robberies, and the like.  Interacting with the victims, witnesses, and defendants, the majority of whom were all African-American, gave me a new view of life in New York City.  It introduced me to life in the African-American neighborhoods, which were inundated with drugs and crime and poverty and hardship.   But I really still didn’t understand, and I was still living a segregated life.

I tend to be politically conservative, and so are most of my friends and associates.  It is commonplace in conservative circles to dismiss claims of racism, or to minimize the lingering effects of racism.  Conservatives tend to have great faith in personal responsibility and initiative, and at times there is a distinct aroma of judgmentalism directed towards poor people, as if it is all their fault for remaining in poor and disadvantaged areas.  There also tends to be an emphasis on the social pathologies that afflict African-American communities — the breakdown of the family, poor schools, and so on.  All of this may have some truth to it, but is has never satisfied me as a good answer to what’s really going on.

We are now in a time where racial tensions are at the highest that I can recall.  The reality is that there are many, many people in the African-American communities, people of good will, who believe that there is systemic racism in America. It does nobody any good to deny this or to explain it away as a mis-perception, or a politically-motivated stunt.  It is a cliche to say that we need to have a “national conversation” about race, but it is also true.  But this has to begin by having personal conversations, to develop a better understanding of how we really live, so that we can begin to address the problem.

I still live a segregated life.  None of my close friends are African-American.  A handful of my neighbors are African-American, but aside from nodding “hello” to them in the street, I don’t interact with them at all.  With only two exceptions, none of my close co-workers is African-American.

Pope Francis consistently talks about the need to reach out to those on the periphery of society.  But I think I’m the one who is on the periphery when it comes to race in our nation.

Because there’s a serious problem with what’s going on.  And I still don’t understand.

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