Dear Reader 2

When I was in my late teens, walking on Broadway in the 80’s; that would be 50+ years ago, we stopped, foolishly, to watch cops chasing teens in our direction.  One cop caught up with one of these young black men, who was running with a shotgun in his hand, threw him against a store front and said, with gun to the young man’s head, “drop it or I’ll shoot you, black motherf**ker”.  I was not horrified.  The cop, in my mind, was trying to scare the “perp”.  He was successful and the incident ended.  Today I would feel differently about such behavior, the racial epithet was not necessary and I am embarrassed by my acceptance of it as a good control technique.  If the alleged thief were white, what would the officer have said? How about today?

This was the 20th precinct fifty years ago, I am long gone.  But the racism represented here was not isolated.

When I worked at my first job in the Rockefeller program (NYS’ misguided attempts at drug treatment, an early form of mass incarceration) I did not understand my role in the power structure. The job located on 61st and Broadway was part of the management of a statewide program to lock up drug addicts for treatment and then put them into a system to be monitored by armed Narcotic Parole Officers.

When I moved on to the VERA Institute of Justice further downtown, while still living on 83rd Street, I was again touching “the system” but this time in an effort to develop a fair, scientific furlough program for the NYS Department of Corrections.

(Did you know that NYS has 52 prisons in 2020? This is at least 20 less than 1980.)

The NYS mental health system was my workplace for many years.  I didn’t run head on into racism until the hospital in Suffolk County that was taking transfers from Brooklyn, who happened to be mostly black, was politically and socially attacked by locals.   

My job and my heart led me to defend against these angry frightened neighbors.

In Brooklyn, my work community changed.  Suddenly I was the minority. Staff throughout the facility were mostly black.  As part of the integrated senior staff I missed the seething dislike “below” until I criticized a black program manager and was immediately attacked as a “Jim Crow racist.”

I was so upset by the words of the worker that I called a former rabbi from Rodeph Sholom,  a man who had fought injustice, like his father, his whole career.  He talked me down off the ledge, it hurt so much, it was so unfair and incorrect.  

Today I can look back and see that although she was defending incompetent behavior she was speaking from a terrible history of oppression.

There is so much wrong.  We must start by listening and we each have to look

and see where we were, and are, part of the problem.

The West Side bred me reasonably well but not to action.  In the 60’s, for me, commuting daily from West 83rd Street into Harlem, it was the war in Vietnam before there was any personal knowledge of racism in NYC.  Maybe because the war was personal, maybe because I had been protected/segregated for so long.

My classes were almost exclusively white at PS9 and JHS44, my synagogues (all three: the SAJ, B’nai Jeshurun and Rodeph Sholom) were all white and the only people of color that I remember at 222 were household help. Helen helped raise me from age three to age sixteen and that may have helped build my current relationships. Today I understand that we never saw anyone but black women in such a job.  

The elevator operators, superintendent , handyman, doormen, and porters in 222 were all white.  The playground in Riverside Park was white children and household help or parents for supervision. Today I would question this but then it was invisible to me.

Unbeknownst, it was our little white enclave in what was billed as the greatest city in the world.

Dear Reader,

LeavingWest83rdStreet is important to me.  I hope that you are enjoying my work.  Our times lead me to say that there are much more important things to be written about and I hope that you will look at this effort as an opportunity to go beyond my story.

Thank you for sticking with me.  It is an honor to have you along.

I have been witness to many historical events and to many efforts directed at change.  I heard the words and laws of the sixties with the hopefulness of an adolescent.  I saw the murders of President Kennedy, Dr. King, and Robert Kennedy, among others, on TV.  I was afraid. Many times I thought change would come.  I watched the anger and fear and resulting riots from afar.

All those things shaped the man I became.  Raised in the relatively liberal community of Manhattan’s Upper West Side, raised in part by an African American housekeeper and having limited experience beyond that in my youth, my parents taught me well.  Other groups except our WWII opponents were never spoken of badly.  (In my late teens I strenuously though ineffectively argued with my father about German cars and Japanese cameras.  Eventually, I owned both.

I was disturbed but distant in the early and mid-sixties but by 1970 my level of action had changed.  Co-chairing a CCNY commission with a black woman was significant as was the takeover of part of the college’s campus by black students.  

I have had many black friends and colleagues over the years.  I hope I have not been part of the problem, although I must have been.  I recognize that in addition to white privilege I have also had Jewish privilege because I lived in NY where there were so many of us.  I see that we were segregated in elementary and junior high school, not because the neighborhood wasn’t home to many people with ancestors from many places, but because the board of education kept us separate or maybe it’s better said, “kept them separate”.

We won the right to vote at 18 in my lifetime.  We helped bring an end to Nixon and to the war in Vietnam.  But so little has staying power.  I can’t help thinking of the teens from Parkland who filled me with hope and then they were gone.

My kids are steadfastly supportive of the rights of others, we did well in raising them.  But, I hear and see so much that’s not working and I know that I didn’t do enough.  Yes, I called out racist and sexist remarks; I walked away from ethnic jokes, but I didn’t do enough.

And that’s where we are today, we have to listen to people and hear the pain they are coming from.  We must not allow ourselves to be diverted by the current administration or by those who are acting inappropriately.  We have to listen.

To my friend who woke up last week at 2am to CNN reporting from the Barclay Center, whose heart stopped as she ran to check on her boys, I am sorry, I did not do enough.