In the national debate triggered by the George Zimmerman verdict I’ve heard people deny that racism is still a problem in America. That reminds me of an even greater denial we white New Yorkers indulged in when I was growing up in Manhattan in the 1930s and ‘40s.
We were taught racial equality; it was drummed into us, and our teachers were sincere. We held smug views about our own values compared to those murderous Southern bigots who enforced complete racial segregation and put on white hoods and beat up and lynched blacks who looked at them the wrong way. We could not understand such degradation of another human being, and if anyone had dared to suggest that we white New Yorkers were guilty of any measure of racism ourselves, we would have reacted in bewilderment if not anger.
It took me years to wake up to the fact of Northern discrimination, which was no less pervasive and oppressive for being invisible to us whites. In the Manhattan of my childhood and adolescence, the only black faces to be seen south of 97th Street belonged to maids, janitors, garbage collectors, dishwashers–and perhaps a few jazz musicians. A walk through Times Square of an evening–white faces only. Restaurants, bars, theaters–white customers only. In the 1945 graduating class of my small high school, one black, about thirty whites, and in the next class two blacks, including one who “didn’t count,” as he was the son of a famous jazz pianist. In the subways, yes, especially on the “A” train, we saw blacks traveling to and from Harlem to their jobs as house servants or laborers.
Segregation was not mandated or required in New York but it was not prohibited until much later. Therefore blacks were not legally barred from eating in “white” restaurants, as they were in the South, but it almost never happened. In many restaurants blacks would be told that they needed a reservation, and in establishments that could not make that claim the blacks would be seated in a corner near the kitchen or the restrooms and given rude service. So they didn’t try. They stayed in Harlem.
We saw all this segregation and it did not register, or we ignored it, denied it, despite our loud espousal of racial equality. I can only imagine how it felt to the blacks who lived in the city at the time because I never heard them speak of it and there were no protest marches or speeches against it. Our white liberal anti-Jim Crow rage was directed at the much worse atrocities in the south. I still remember the shouted slogans about freeing the “Scottsboro boys,” nine teen-aged Alabama blacks accused falsely of raping two white women; they would have been executed if not for the northern protests and the white lawyers sent from New York to defend them.
I also remember everyone in my lefty household rejoicing at every victory of heavyweight champion Joe Louis–not just because he defeated the Nazi Schmeling, but because he was a black, thus somehow vindicating our advanced views about the equality of the races. At the same time we ignored the absence of any blacks in major league baseball. The blacks had their own leagues, the Negro National League and the Negro American League, so that apparently made it all right.
Then something funny happened on our way to a lily-white future: the wave of southern blacks migrating north for jobs in the labor-hungry World War II industries. Black neighborhoods in the city became overcrowded, the geographic color lines began to break down, and white attitudes began to shift. Or perhaps true white attitudes emerged from the rosy fog of denial. More blacks were attracted to the city after 1945, when job discrimination became illegal in New York. Equal housing laws were still years away so as blacks sought housing in formerly all-white areas, white landlords and residents abandoned their abstract ideals and resisted in every way they could.
And that’s when I finally woke up to the falsehood around me. My parents, paragons of equality and social justice, owned a brownstone row house on the upper west side of Manhattan; they lived on two floors and rented out apartments on the top two levels. I was there one day when a young black couple rang the doorbell and said they had come to see an apartment that had been advertised for rent.
“Oh,” I heard my mother say, “it’s been rented. I’m sorry.” The couple smiled politely and left.
The apartment had not been rented and I could not at first believe what I had just witnessed. “Why did you say that?” I asked. “The apartment is empty.”
“I know,” my mother said, “but we can’t do that. There are none on the block . The property values would go down.”
I was old enough to appreciate the real estate equation but still young enough to be shattered at the betrayal of my ideals by the parents who had so powerfully proclaimed them. We argued about it for hours. My father agreed with my mother, although he recognized the hypocrisy; I fought them both. Eventually I realized it was not just the real estate values that worried them but the social pressure as well: the fear that if they were the ones to break the color line they would be ostracized by their neighbors, the other homeowners on the block. They were probably right about that. White New York would have punished them.
Blacks soon came in to the neighborhood, but Lincoln Center did too, so property values soared. Irony, proving nothing. The only lesson I can draw from all this is that attitudes and biases are not always visible, not even our own.