When I was growing up, I knew very little about races and racism. I was born and spent the first nine years of my life in the Bay Area, the east Bay Area, the Oakland side – the real Bay Area. Dad owned several delicatessens at the time and they all served very working class people of all races. While we lived in a very white neighborhood our churches and schools were a racial mix of Asians, especially Japanese, blacks, Hispanics and us.
I suppose racial sensitivity was high living so close to Oakland in the 1950s and 60’s. Maybe that’s why everyone seemed to get along where I lived. But I have to think as well that we got along because we didn’t have class distinctions, even if racial tensions were high inside the big cities.
In 1967, we moved from the Bay Area to the suburbs just outside of Chicago. For a ten-year-old boy, the change in culture was staggering. It felt like the big city. It smelled different. It looked different. It was the first time I had seen snow. Dad traveled to work by train. I never knew what humidity was nor had I ever experienced severe weather and tornados. And everything was so green in the summer. It’s like my life went from two-dimensional to three-dimensional.
But one thing was the same for me in Chicago in 1967 as it was in California – we lived in a diverse, peaceful community. And I say that recognizing that Chicago in the summer of ’68 was home to the riotous Democratic National Convention. We lived 13 miles from the Chicago Loop and yet we felt nothing of the racial tensions plaguing the city. In fact, I experienced nothing of the sort. The group of kids I went to school with weren’t as diverse as I experienced in California but the mix of black and white was there. I did notice that my black friends literally lived on the other side of the tracks and, while my parents told me not to go over there, there were no racial divisions at school. We played together, laughed together, and my black friends didn’t seem disadvantaged in the least.
I could go on. When we moved from Chicago to Washington, D.C., I had the exact same experience. To this day it’s funny for me to watch the movie Remember the Titans and wonder where they came up with that script. T.C. Williams was a predominantly black high school. It was far from the epicenter of racial tensions portrayed in the movie. It was inner-city Alexandria, not rural Virginia. The community was filled with government workers, not rednecks sitting outside the barbershop complaining about integration. The only accurate part of the movie, in my opinion, was their football team really was unbeatable.
And so as we watch and listen to news reports about heightened racial tensions, I have to wonder. I know the South had its horribles. I know racists exist today. In fact, I think racial bias exists in all of us if we’re truthful – at least to the extent that my racial experience isn’t the same as a person of color. Today’s tensions are difficult for me to discern in terms of race. Most people are their better selves. Most people are not overtly racist. Most people respect equal opportunity. But that’s not to say racism, especially institutional racism, doesn’t exist. It is to say that the divide we suffer in this nation has to be the result of something more than just racial differences.
I was pleased to read Robert Putnam’s new book, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis. Putnam’s theory, based on considerable research, is that America doesn’t suffer from a race problem as much as it suffers from a class problem. Our divisions today are more about the haves and have-nots than they are about race. Yes, inner cities are typically minority and their socio-economic problems tend to look like racial divides. But Putnam says that as soon as black families have the opportunity to move out, they do. It’s not really a black-versus-white world. It’s a poor-versus-rich world. And that analysis jibes with my experiences growing up.
Outside of Hollywood and Manhattan and other spots of high society, everyone used to live together. My neighborhoods had wealthy people and poor people but the divide was much less dramatic. And, when families fell into wealth, rarely did they move to a gated community. Those families typically stayed where the lived. Maybe they moved into a bigger home but they stayed in our community and contributed. When I think of middle-class neighborhoods, that’s what I think of.
Utah used to be that way too. We’re still the most middle-class state in the Union but the divides are beginning to appear. More Utah families are moving into class communities, gated or not. That seems to be our aspiration today. But we would do well to rethink both racial and class differences and, hopefully, perhaps we can reclaim what we’ve lost.