Ethnic relations: Beyond law and virtue

Sam Smith

As I read about the growing ethnic conflict in the country, highlighted by police brutality against blacks and Donald Trump’s brutality against common decency, I have the feeling of moving backwards to a different time and place. It is as if fifty years of progress is being reversed, and the arguments and behaviors that spurred the civil rights movement and its gifts to America are being badly damaged and forgotten.

The civil rights movement was built in part on the faith that if one tried hard enough in the right way you would not only achieve goals of decency but convert those who were currently opposing them. And it wasn’t just about laws and virtue. As I wrote a couple of decades ago:

What if we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural narcissism and myopia? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of “no fault justice.” We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King’s admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends

Today, many think the answer to evil is simply hating and berating the wrong doers and punishing them for their offenses. The media encourages this, heavily reporting the wrongs – such as cops killing innocent black men – but finding little time to report on changes in policing that would make such events less likely. Thus, unlike the civil rights movement, we confront current horrors with much less hope or discussion about replacing them with anything saner and kinder.

There is a parallel to this that one finds in dysfunctional families, where some of the offspring spend their whole lives in a righteous but futile anger about things that happened without realizing that while you can’t rewrite history you can still change the present and the future.

I feel something similar happening now in our cultural relations. You find it not only in anger far outpacing constructive action but also in the emphasis on eliminating nasty semiotics and cruel symbols, which are just reflections of bad conditions and whose disappearance typically follows rather than leads substantive change. Replacing the name of a 19th century segregationist from a university wall will not alter current police behavior in the slightest.

But another thing I have felt while following these sad stories is what a gift the multicultural has been to my life and, I suspect, to many others. I don’t talk about it much, others don’t either and the media, for the most part, covers diversity’s problems, its regulatory cures, but not its joys and satisfactions. And it’s one of the things current efforts are missing.

For me, discovering other cultures began as early as ninth grade, taking one of two anthropology courses taught in American high schools at the time. Our teacher, Howard Platt, was a tall, bald, bespectacled Quaker. It was a wonderful world that he laid before us. Not the stultifying world of our parents, the monochromatic world of our neighborhood, the boring world of 9th grade, but a world of endless options, a world in which people got to cook, eat, shelter themselves, have sex, dance and pray in an extraordinary variety of ways. Mr. Platt’s subliminal message of cultural diversity was simultaneously a message of freedom. You were not a prisoner of your culture; you could always go live with the Eskimos, the Indians or the Arabs. By the time the bell rang I was often ready to move, an inclination heightened by research into the mammary variations of cultures as revealed by the photos in National Geographic.

What we learned that year was strikingly different from what we were learning elsewhere. The world around us, in so many ways, was teaching us to define our place by a process of exclusion, secured by the assumption that we were smarter, whiter, and/or faster than someone else.

In Mr. Platt’s class, things were different. The world was defined by people who built igloos and pyramids and stone axes and rafts that could cross an ocean and they lived together in strange combinations and went into the forest to have babies and some of them had more gods than others and some didn’t like to fight as much as others and some thought if you died in your sleep your soul would fly away.

After awhile, it was no longer odd to learn about a new culture. The difference of it all seemed natural and, in fact, brought us closer to those we were reading about.

Of course, some of what I read in anthropology about some of the peoples conquered or swept aside in the great march of Western Civilization also made me uncomfortable. There were American Indians, for example, who were considerably more likable than the white men who got rid of them. And it annoyed me to read of white missionaries landing on Pacific Islands and making the natives wear western clothes with some of them dying of pneumonia because of their wet western clothes after a rainstorm or going swimming.

By the end of the year I could take the Romans or leave them. I liked their domes but didn’t like them beating up people because they were ‘barbarians’ and had some land the Romans wanted. I liked the independently invented domes of the Inuits too, but didn’t care for their tendency to dump their old people out in the snow to die when the food got short. I had become acquainted with so many cultures so vastly different from my own and from each other that I was hard pressed to say which was inferior or superior. I was not even inclined to try.

I had become, without knowing the term, a cultural relativist. Mr. Platt did not exorcise racism, and he did not teach ethnic harmony, cultural sensitivity, the regulation of equality, or the morality of non-prejudiced behavior. He taught something far more important, something missing from the present discourse on ethnicity, something too often absent still from school and college curricula. Mr. Platt opened a world to us in which its variety was not something to fear or regulate but to learn about, appreciate and enjoy. It was not an obstacle, but a gift that came with being human.

About the same time I had become a drummer and a vigorous student of jazz and its musicians, including Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Ella Fitzgerald and Fats Waller. Such characters became cultural role models and helped me start my Quaker school’s first jazz band. They were not honored by my school, parents, or other white adults around me, but they nonetheless became covert pals who helped me enjoy the often tough times of a teenager.

When I got to Harvard, I found I had been far from alone. Many of my friends, also musicians, were big fans of black jazz and in our beat era rebellion against the conventional found in its players alternative souls and attitudes to admire and emulate. I still remember Miles Davis in a large auditorium playing with his back to the audience and thinking, yeah, that’s how I feel sometimes. And, coincidentally, to back it all up, the best book I read was Martin Luther King’s Stride Towards Freedom, not on any course list.

Further, out of twenty anthropology majors at Harvard, five of us had been students of Howard Platt, who knew how to welcome his students to cultural diversity in a way that today whole towns and institutions – from police departments to universities – have yet to discover. It was not a moral, legal or political discovery, but simply a better way to live and think about others.

All of which (along with having a Puerto Rican sister in law and four Puerto Rican nephews and nieces, one of whom became a fellow journalist) came in handy when I moved back to my birthplace, Washington DC, to begin work as a radio reporter. My father had been in the Roosevelt administration and he and my mother had refused to sign then common restrictive covenants (promising not to sell your property to a “Negro, Jew or Persian”) and had instead built a house in a Georgetown alley on a trash dump next to a row of black occupied shanties, half of them without running water – a neighborhood still being listed by the Census as “rural.” While Washington was deeply segregated (including my elementary school), the line between ethnicities was not infrequently just as close as ours. And while I did not play with the kids next door, in that row also lived our mailman. How many mid level officials in the Obama administration live on the same block as their postal carrier?

This is something that is generally ignored in talking about ethnic relations. The proximity of cultures makes a large difference simply because, while a community may be segregated, its people are not strangers. For much of the white south, integration was an undesired forced change to existing relationships. For much of the white north black migration was more like an alien invasion. This is still reflected today in the twenty top cities where a black in 2015 was likely to be killed by a cop. Only four of those cities were in the south. A black was 7 times more likely to be killed by a cop in Oklahoma than in Georgia.

Another advantage of cultural proximity is that it damages clichés. It may even break formal cultural rules. Washington’s black madam, Odessa Madre, was a classic example.

At her peak in the 1940s, Madre was earning about $100,000 a year, and had at least six bawdy houses, bookmaking operations, and a headquarters known as the Club Madre. Among the performers there were Moms Mabley, Count Basie and Nat King Cole.

By 1980, Madre had been picked up 30 times on 57 charges over a 48 year span, seven of them spent in a federal prison.

Madre grew up in a mixed neighborhood of blacks and Irish, the latter heavily populating the DC police force and, in the end, often looking out for their childhood friend. “Negroes and Irishmen got along real well,” Madre told the Washington Post’s Courtland Milloy. “They would fight amongst themselves, but we wouldn’t fight each other. If somebody outside Cowtown came to fight the Irish, the Negroes would chunk bricks at them. We were like a big happy family.”

Writes Milloy: “Thus began a long and prosperous relationship with members of the Metropolitan Police Department. When Madre’s childhood friends grew up, they became captains, lieutenants and even superintendents in the police department, like their fathers. As the year passed and Madre became the notorious ‘Queen,’ many of her childhood buddies couldn’t forget that she had once been their compatriot in the ‘Great Rock Chunkin’ Wars’ against the Italian and German kids.”

After I came back to DC, I wrote a friend:

Have been covering some of the anti-segregation demonstrations around the Washington area. The results here have been hopeful. Good police work has kept violence to a minimum although the presence of neo-Nazi Lincoln Rockwell and his troopers doesn’t make the situation any simpler. Quite a few lunch counters have been desegregated. Glen Echo Amusement Park is resisting despite a month of picketing and a Bethesda theater is also refusing to back down.

Earlier that year, four black college students had sat in at a white-only Woolworths lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. Within two weeks, there were sit-ins in fifteen cities in five southern states and within two months they had spread to fifty four cities in nine states. In April the leaders of these protests had come together, heard a moving sermon by Martin Luther King Jr. and formed the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee. The 1957 summer I had first worked for WWDC, I had covered the passage of the first civil rights legislation in Congress since 1875. Now it was getting serious. By the end of June, I was covering the desegregation of lunch counters in Thr suburbs.

But it wasn’t all progress. The House and the Senate were tying themselves in knots over civil rights legislation. In the House, Judge Howard Smith, who was czar of the Rules Committee, had once justified slavery on the grounds that the Romans and Egyptians had used it to build their civilizations. He also noted that southerners had never accepted the idea that the “colored race” had equal intelligence, education and social attainments as whites.

He was not alone. Over on the Senate side, I reported that “This afternoon it was JW Fulbright who said the issue of discrimination was non-existent — raised every four years for political reasons.” Fulbright at the time was participating in a southern filibuster that had already been going 69 hours, far longer than any previous effort.

Meanwhile, several times when calling the DC police dispatcher to check on overnight activities, I was told something like, “Nothin’ but a few nigger stabbings.” It had, after all, only been twelve years since the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell arrived to take his seat in the House of Representatives. Stepping into his office for the first time he found a memo on his desk headed “Dos and Don’ts for Negro Congressmen.” One was “Don’t eat in the House dining room.” And, according to the Washington Post, a 1948 report by the National Committee on Segregation in the Nation’s Capital noted a traveler from India as saying “I would rather be an Untouchable in the Hindu caste system than a Negro in Washington.”

But there were good signs as well such as a sizable number of white Jews marching alongside black protesters at Glen Echo amusement park. Or the fact that a year before national school desegregation, a Supreme Court decision had forced the integration of the capital’s restaurants. Or that President Eisenhower had promised to integrate the capital.

Even later, during the six days of the 1968 riots, only four people were violently killed – two white and two black. The black mayor, Walter Washington, refused FBI director Hoover’s order to shoot rioters, pointing out that you can replace buildings but not people.

Something else, little noticed, affected the capital: its history and its cultural complexity. As early as 1810, 31% of blacks in Washington were free. That number rose to 78% by the time of the Civil War. In the mid 19th century Sojourner Truth integrated streetcars in DC, which still meant that blacks had to move to the back of the cars when they crossed a bridge into Virginia.

Not a few black Washingtonians were supported by government employment. In fact when the civil rights protests of the 1960s took place, I heard fellow activists complain about the non-participation of older black Washingtonians who didn’t want their jobs threatened.

Once, while in the offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, where I was aiding director Marion Barry with media, Stokely Carmichael came and announced that we whites were no longer welcomed in the civil rights movement. Yet a couple of years later I found myself working with blacks and whites to form a third party on behalf of DC statehood just as some years earlier a similar coalition – including black and white middle class homeowners – had joined in a successful fight against freeways. For 25 years we would have a black party member on the city council and/or school board.

The longer you lived in DC the more you realized that nothing about its black community was simple. Some 15% were Catholic. Blacks included some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest residents, including folks whose great great grandparents had lived there as free blacks and some who had only recently arrived from further South. I was stopped twice in the 1960s by black men wanting to buy my beagle, clearly hoping that they could still hunt somewhere like they had in their recently departed southern home towns.

Then there were black students having a hard time in public schools but elders who had been taught there during the days of segregation by highly qualified black men and women not permitted to be college professors. As Wendell E Pritchett has noted, “D.C. became a mecca for America’s black elite. Howard University played a central role in this process. The nation’s foremost black college, organized at a time when discrimination was the rule at most institutions of higher learning, Howard drew blacks from around the nation. For decades, its law and medical schools produced the majority of the nation’s black professionals, and D.C.’s black elite was large and economically diverse.”

There were also numerous variations in the white community. Those who hated blacks had mostly peacefully moved to the suburbs in large numbers. During the decade of the 1950s the percentage of whites declined by a third. By 1980 in the nation’s capital just 28% were non-latino whites. During this same period the number of blacks had doubled. Today, whites are back in the majority.

A 2011 study reported by the Washington Post found that blacks and whites both understood how class could surpass ethnicity:

Most District residents — black and white — see socioeconomic class, not race, as the primary source of a stark divide in the city, according to a new poll by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation. And when it comes to their outlook on the city, their own neighborhoods and certain aspects of the economy, higher-income African Americans have more in common with similarly wealthy whites than with lower-income blacks.
But in many other important areas, the differences between blacks and whites persist, regardless of income level. Blacks with household incomes of $100,000 or more express significantly more sour views of the District’s economy than do whites with similar incomes. Higher-income African Americans also are less secure than whites about their own financial well-being, more apprehensive about the spreading effects of gentrification and somewhat more critical of the state of race relations in the District.

 These changes may seem tumultuous but in fact, Washington – save for the 1968 riots – managed somehow to handle it all better than many other places are doing today. While most whites live in white neighborhoods there are few Donald Trumps among them. And the city, for all its other changes, has had, over a half century, nothing but black mayors.

This complex story was one strong reason I lived in Washington so long and so well. As an independent minded guy, I was complex too and found the city a good place to be your own thing. Further complexity is an extremely useful foe of clichés.

My gut rule for dealing with others became twofold: respect and humor. And the payback for me in DC was friendship and learning lots of new things. Ethnic fairness wasn’t just the law and the right thing to do, it was pleasant, interesting and fun.

Such things have gotten lost in our obsession with procedures and rules as the solutions for all our problems. Law and documents only carry you so far. And in the best communities you’ll find them hardly mentioned because there are no legal contracts that provide happy living.

This is why for decades I argued for getting police out of their cars into neighborhoods, schools that introduce students to cultural variety as well as mathematical values, a government that made it easier for us all to get along, as well as media and institutions that addressed multi-culturalism not just for its problems but for its vigorous assets.

I’ve seen it and lived it long enough to know it can happen. But the first step is to start talking about it How can your town and community become a better place for everyone who lives there? How can everyone learn to like others and have fun while doing so?

We need to know. Last year just less than half of American babies born were non-latino whites. Predictions are that in 30 or 40 years these whites will be part of a minority nationwide.

Washington is one interesting and useful example of how this can happen in a positive way. But, as with so many good examples, we tend to ignore its story and what it can reveal. Instead we let the bad stuff and the violence-hungry amongst us – whether police, media, neighbors or politicians – define our status thus undermining sensible education for, and enjoyment of, a better society.

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