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.