December 2014
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Black Lives

by Jonathan Wallace

Bragging alert: I am very proud of the following story:

In 2003, the year I spent working on transport ambulances, I got a hernia carrying patients, had the surgery and was told I couldn't lift for six weeks. My employer was kind enough to give me work in the office and as the weeks passed, I grew very attached to my co-workers, experienced EMT's and medics with fascinating stories both about the job and their lives. One morning, a young man came in to the office for something, got visibly nervous and left, and one of my senior colleagues said, "I guess he doesn't like being around black people". I had to go through a momentary mental reconfiguration ("What did that mean???") and it hit me that for more than a month, I had been the only white person in the office, without noticing. I had done what I had always believed, been trained to believe, no white American could ever do, forget race.

Later, when I transferred to the company's 911 operation, I had many African American partners, and worked overnight tours in the South Bronx and Harlem where I learned a few more things. Some nights I was the only white person in sight for an entire tour. I went to black people's apartments and discovered that they were people who, like me, were just trying to get by in a hard world, to take care of children whom they loved, afford food and toys, navigate the environment to get the support and resources they needed to take care of their families. The difference was, their lives were harder than mine, because their landlords were trying to get them out and police were stopping them for no reason when they walked down the street. Every black partner of mine had multiple stop-and-frisk stories; sometimes the police even stopped them when they were in uniform. I found that I particularly got on well with tired, practical, middle aged black EMT's who had taken a few punches from life, as I imagined myself to be the white equivalent.

I did CPR on about fifty people whose hearts had stopped. When I tried to save dead black people, the families either helped in every way they could--getting me access to the patient in crowded spaces, helping to carry the stretcher--or they went in the next room, joined hands and prayed. It took a white woman in a huge apartment on Park Avenue to put her lawyer on the telephone with us to say he would sue if we stopped CPR.

I had always uncritically imagined that I came from an elite--the highly educated, the decision-makers, the top of the white middle class who upon graduation spread out across the world to run things. I now had a new vision, that I also came from a class of the entitled, the infantile, those trained to be closed-minded and stupid, those to whom much more is given and of whom so much less is asked. "Our" people-- George Bush Jr. is the epitome of this--can hang in a web of privilege all our lives, never challenged, assured of jobs, never permitted to fail. I remember the alpha boy in my grade school, when I met him years later, saying, "We weren't expected to have ideas, we were intelligent pets". Today, I cannot bear to be in a room full of men talking about golf and their prostates. When a woman has a meltdown in Starbuck's because the minimum wage barrista used the wrong kind of milk in the latte, or a man (as I witnessed just the other day) spends twenty minutes in the Amagansett post office grilling the new African American woman postmaster about a piece of mail which went in the wrong box, I feel like resigning from my race or at least my class.

From childhood, I had learned that poverty meant an absence of money; but I have recently fully understood that poverty also involves an absence of information. One more thing I always took for granted was that, if something new or unexpected happened, there was always someone knowledgeable in the environment who could advise me what it meant, what to do: a traffic ticket, a letter from the IRS, a problem with my health insurance. Many of the black people I try to help in my pro bono law practice are in trouble because they don't have anyone like that. I have represented several people who, in foreclosure, were approached by con men who said, put the deed to your house in my name and I will fix your credit problems and transfer it back to you in a year. And they did, because there was no-one to ask. Each of them also shared another experience: they each found a lawyer who took five thousand dollars from them and then did nothing to help. Black people are surrounded by predators of every description. Our nation crossed an invisible line during the 2009 mortgage scandal when it became obvious that the exploitation of black homeowners through the sale of adjustable rate mortgages they could never afford, had official sanction as An Approved Feature of Capitalism (not one banker has served a day in prison for it). Just this week I sat with a schoolteacher who, making a claim to her insurer for water damage when a pipe burst, was asked to produce her tax returns, any evidence of past evicton proceedings, and her bank statements, with 45 other categories of documents, and to come in for an examination under oath, and was preparing to do so, because she had no frame of reference, no one to tell her how shocking, inappropriate and illegal this all was. Now I am trying to be that resource for people like her, the person you can ask.

There was a time in early childhood when I remember not being racist, and a much longer time when I was. Before you are five, if you meet any black children at all, you probably find them to be an interesting human variation; people come in various tints like curtains or flowers. We had a black housekeeper, Lucille Bailey, who took care of us while our doctor-parents worked, and I found her daughter Lorraine and her husband, whom I met just once when he came to our house to do some carpentry, different and fascinating. A unique memory from when I was six or seven is of playing alone on my lawn when a black child my age came down the street. He was an anomaly, as strange as a comet: in 1961 no-one like him lived in my neighborhood or could possibly walk home to Bed Stuy from newly integrated P.S. 193. He was carrying under his arm an equally unique toy I had never seen before, a racing game in which you pressed little tabs to make horses move in grooves down a track. We sat on my lawn and played for an hour, and then he got up to leave. I asked when I would see him again. He may have said "soon" or "next week" but never came back.

Then you get older and you breathe in racism like air. My parents were liberals, voted the straight Democratic line, and wanted the South integrated, surely; but Lucille Bailey, who was ten years older than them, was "the girl" and when my mother, driving around Brooklyn, saw a black kid on a new bicycle, she always asked: "How do you think he got that bike?" I believe Northern racism was class-based, that we were trained more to be frightened of black people than to hate them, that we always assumed that they wanted what we had, and would take it if they had the opportunity, and of course that they didn't like us. The children who began to be bused into my school in 1961 or 1962 in fact did not want to be there, but why should they? I saw a schoolteacher slap a black student, which was unprecedented, because nobody ever hit us in public school.

Whenever anything happened, anyone you told about it immediately asked the race of those involved. Twice in my teenage life I was robbed on streetcorners by white people, and each time when I told family or friends about it, the first question was: "Were they black?" Some white liberal friend of my parents told a story about some black children who had been invited to someone's country house via a "Fresh Air" program, and after they left it was discovered they had pocketed some tchotchkes. There was a general perception "they" were not like us, that the inequality was somehow so deeply based, in the bone, that in 1961 it was almost impossible to imagine even a black policeman, let alone a black judge or president. It was only much later that I understood that we abducted people from their countries, forced them and future generations to live in extreme danger and degradation, and then accused them of not knowing which fork to use at table.

In the interests of full disclosure, I have to include one very shameful memory. When I was eleven or twelve, I was swimming at Stony Beach in Woods Hole, where we spent our summers. An accentless voice spoke from behind me, that had no inherent ethnicity, and when I turned around, I was astonished to see a black kid my age in "my" ocean. I didn't know what to make of him or what he was doing there, and I grunted or nodded and kept swimming. Just five years before, the child comet on 21st street had interested me so much I wanted to keep him there longer; now, because of the poisons I had drunk in the years between, another child comet on Stony Beach was disturbing and unwelcome. I would seek this man out and apologize to him today if I could.

When I was sixteen, incipient hippie, I was in Union Square one night listening to a black orator angry at some other black men on a bench nearby, who were ignoring him. His judgment was that they would never better their situation, never get out of the ghetto, because they were too accepting, too complacent. I felt compassion for him, which he didn't want from me as it turned out: I said very ineptly, "You are smarter than that whole bunch", and he replied with lacerating accuracy that one refers to a bunch of bananas, but a group of people. Here began a new era of self examination: I didn't want to be racist any more but hardly knew how to stop. I saw that the habits were so deeply ingrained they could reveal themselves, even in a well intentioned moment, in a heartbeat ("love me, I'm a liberal," Phil Ochs sang).

I have told the end of the story at the beginning. With some work and care, but mostly with experience, I was finally able to forget race. The best thing any white person can do to address the problem of race is....get to know a lot of African American people, exactly the solution that our segregated society made nearly impossible for most of my life. There was a time in the 1980's, when I practiced before several black judges but knew no black lawyers. I turned sixty recently, and hope the twenty-five year olds are living in a somewhat better world, but don't know that to be true. I mean by that a world that is actually integrated before you get to the demonstration.

My "forgetting" requires some explanation, as there is another kind of forgetting which is deeply racist: the Official Narrative that bad results are acceptable because we are officially purportedly race blind. Stop and frisk for example was officially conducted without regard to race, for the protection of certain people against other people in their neighborhood, as Mayor Bloomberg so piously told us. Yet the NYPD never once set up outside 1 Chase Plaza, where they would assuredly have realized a juicy haul of cocaine and pot and probably a few weapons carried by the bankers and brokers. The most hypocritical thing I ever heard, though, was from the new principal of a formerly free private school founded by nuns, justifying the freshly all white student body whose parents were paying college-style tuition: "We are race blind"-- we didn't set out to exclude minorities; it just happened, like weather.

My kind of forgetting is more like the perceptions of my five year old self, before racism. I am forgetting only things I should never have learned. The color of someone's skin in context becomes a single not too important feature in the gestalt that is the human, like someone's collection of baseball cards or the fact someone else can hit a baseball over the power lines. Looked at that way, President Obama is a man who went to my law school and who is probably smarter than I am. He once taught constitutional law, loves his family, has done some things relating to the First Amendment, the economy, and war with which I deeply disagree. I voted for him twice because he was the smartest candidate on the scene. He is also black, a feature I find interesting, historic in context and sympathetic.

This was a hard essay to write, partly from fear of the Union Square syndrome, of saying the wrong thing. Now that I spend so much time with black people, in their neighborhoods and homes, I notice two things. People seem to accept and trust me, which is magnificent; but we still never talk personally about race, which is the ultimate off limits topic in America. On the ambulance, where on a quiet night you may sit together for most of twelve hours passing the time, we talked about racism sometimes.

Rereading this, I see a contradiction: I am writing about black lives while saying that in my world (my vision of the world in which I want to live) that would be a strange modifier, like "left-handed lives" or "baseball card-owning lives". I am stressing difference in order to put it in a less prominent place. I don't know what to say about that, except the world as it is made me do it.

I was motivated to write about black lives this month, because of the heartbreaking and seemingly never-ending incidents, in my own city and Ferguson Missouri and everywhere else, of the police killing unarmed black men and children. This is the result, not necessarily of the deeply murderous cracker hatred we were taught to believe existed only in the South, but also of the fear and contempt we breathed in, and exhaled, in the North. Black lives matter as much as mine or anybody's, and this shit has got to stop. I thought I would go on and discuss facts and witnesses and grand juries, but will save that for another month.