Divided, we stand

What we don’t talk about when we talk about race

Illustration By Gilbert Leiker

About the author
Jaime O’Neill, a retired Butte College instructor, contributes frequently to the CN&R.

The carpet salesman is helpful but obsequious, offering advice, flattery, and deference in equal measures. My wife has an accent pillow with her, and the salesman drops carpet samples on the floor next to it, suggesting compatible colors.

Another customer, a black man, enters the store, and the salesman excuses himself to attend to him.

“May I help you?” he asks, and the sales ritual begins, much as it had when my wife and I came into the store, except that I notice that now the salesman’s pleasantries are all couched in language in which the letter “g” has disappeared from all words ending in “g.”

I notice, too, a kind of condescension as palpable as it is unintentional. He steers the black customer to the section that contains the cheaper grades of carpet, and he asks, “Is there a lady in the picture?"—a question that confuses the customer until the salesman says, “Is your wife gonna have a say in pickin’ out this carpet.”

All of us are in our early 60s—me, my wife, the salesman, and the black customer. We’ve lived the same history, from Selma to Sharpton, from “Ofay” to O.J., and I can see a resigned weariness cross the face of this customer who just wants to buy a damned rug for his living room without being patronized.

The black customer says he’d just like to browse, the salesman returns his attention to me and my wife, but I am no longer interested in carpet samples.

I am weary of the racial divide, weary of the intractability of this gulf that separates us from one another, and saddened that a promise I made to my daughter when she was a baby has not come true.

I remember this with photographic clarity: I am holding my infant daughter in the year Martin Luther King has given his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Her face shines up at me, and I am overwhelmed with feelings for her future—hope, fear, dread, and mystery. Born of those feelings, I make an unspoken pledge to her face, that small pink oval in the crook of my arm. What I pledge to her is that by the time she grows up, we—by which I mean my generation—will have solved the racial problems that have so plagued this country.

At the time, it didn’t seem like such an extravagant promise. The aforementioned Dr. King was making speeches of undeniable moral clarity, and change was in the air. Kennedy was president, and a country led by such a man could hardly be expected to perpetuate the foolishness of discrimination based on skin color. It just did not seem possible that my pigmentation, or anyone else’s, could continue to be seen as a sane or sensible way of judging people.

And so I did my small bit to see that my daughter’s future would be free of the scourge of bigotry and prejudice. Like many in my generation, I carried banners. I worked for fair housing. I tried to extend myself to people whose backgrounds and/or pigmentation differed from my own. I voted for candidates who stood for equal opportunity. Later, when I became a teacher, I tried to share my attitudes with my students.

Much was accomplished and much progress has been made, but the pledge I made to my daughter, now just over 40 years of age, remains unrealized. The torch Martin Luther King bore with such dignity did not get passed. The gulf between the races remains wide.

It remains wide because we cannot speak with honesty about anything that bears on the subject of race. We cannot, for instance, state unequivocally that the mostly black jury in O.J. Simpson’s criminal trial delivered a racially based verdict, as racist as the verdicts once returned by all-white juries in the segregated South of the 1940s and ‘50s. Black filmmakers cannot exhibit honest portrayals of how black people talk among themselves, as witness the flap over the movie Barbershop.

The gulf remains wide because of people like former Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott, people who speak in a kind of code meant to make them sound as though the gulf is no longer wide at all. Until the mask slips, that is, and reveals how near the surface the racism of 1948 remains.

Or the racism of 1957, when I was 13. My dad, tired of the cold winters, moved our family from northern Illinois to a backwater town in central Florida. In Illinois, I had attended an integrated school, but in Florida the schools were still rigidly segregated.

Each day, the bus that took me to my shabby school passed an even shabbier one, the school for the black kids. Windows were broken out. The building was badly in need of paint. It never failed that as we passed some of the kids on the bus would yell insults at the black kids walking on the side of the road.

Everyone in the South seemed to know the phrase from the Supreme Court ruling in the Plessy v. Ferguson case. Segregation had been ruled constitutional so long as public facilities were “separate but equal,” though it took no discernment whatsoever to see that facilities were never equal.

Not that I gave it much thought. At 13, one takes the world largely as one finds it. The assumption still lingers that the grownups know what they’re doing, though the frightening doubt that they don’t hovers just overhead.

On Saturday nights, I would go downtown to the Youth Center to try to ingratiate myself with the cracker kids who’d grown up there, who spoke with the thick accent I struggled to mimic. We all struck poses, drank Dr. Pepper, eyed the girls with their budding breasts, and listened to Chuck Berry or the Everly Brothers on the jukebox.

One night, on the way home with a new friend, I saw two large black men walking in our direction on a dim and nearly deserted street—working men heading home from a late shift in one of the lumber mills We were two skinny white boys, and as the distance between us and them closed, I grew increasingly frightened.

My new cracker buddy, however, showed no sign of fear. When we were five or six feet from them, the two men stepped off the sidewalk into the gutter, allowing us to pass.

The incident remains shocking to me even as I retrieve it from distant memory. Here were two grown men stepping aside for boys who did not yet shave.

Everything I had been taught about respect for my elders was controverted in this small incident. Though I was no stranger to casual racism, the utter injustice of it had never before struck me with such force. How could the world work in any sensible way when adult working men stepped around boys they outweighed by at least 80 pounds?

But of course it wasn’t me and my cracker buddy that made those men step into the gutter; it was the fear of bigger people who shared our skin color, men who might hold the mortgages on their houses, or give the orders where they worked.

What does it do to a man to step into a gutter for boys, and to make such acts of obeisance routinely over the course of a lifetime?

I carried this question with me when my dad moved us back north the following year. I once again found myself in an integrated school, but in a fiercely segregated city where the Pecatonica River drew a line between the races.

Walking home alone along that river one evening after a basketball game, I was jumped by four black kids a year or two older than I was. The prelude to the beating I was about to take involved a test they administered regarding skin color.

The kid who appeared to be their leader pointed to the back of his hand and said, “Hey, honky, what color is that?”

If there was a correct answer to that question, I failed to guess it on that evening, and each incorrect guess (brown? black? beige?) was followed by a pummeling and a chorus of insults. In a final desperate attempt to placate them, I answered “white.” This was the supremely wrong answer, prompting the most prolonged series of blows and kicks.

When I got home, I had to explain a bloody nose, a black eye, bruised ribs, and a torn shirt. “I got jumped by a gang of nigger kids,” I said, between snuffles. Few things resurrect latent bigotry like a racially inspired mugging.

Now flash forward, past the time when I held my baby daughter in my arms to make that grand pledge of a society in which racial division had disappeared. She is 6 years old, and we now live in a small town in the Sierras where I have a new job as a college teacher, a new house, and a new neighbor who hates me on sight.

To him, a retired military man, this new hippie neighbor portends inter-racial parties, maybe even orgies, and probably cultivation of marijuana. A hippie neighbor means a decline in property values.

And so he begins a program of harassment, firing his .12 gauge shotgun at 4:30 each morning where our shared property line is closest to the bedroom windows. When I leave for work, the phone inevitably rings and my wife is treated to a spate of heavy breathing before the caller hangs up.

This continues for several days. I confront him one day as he patrols the edge of the property on a riding mower, his shotgun across his lap. I ask him to refrain from discharging his weapon so near our house so early in the morning. He says, “Welcome to the mountains,” and displays a sausage-sized middle finger.

When we are awakened even earlier the next morning by three shotgun blasts in rapid succession, I call the sheriff’s department to lodge a complaint. The woman on the phone says someone will be right out, but no one comes. Nor does anyone come the next five times I call over the succeeding week.

By this time, I am losing sleep. My work is suffering, and I fear for my family’s safety when I am gone.

In desperation, I go to my boss, the president of the college. He makes some phone calls, talks to his cronies in the Rotary Club, and the next time I phone in a complaint, I am answered by a return call from the office of the district attorney. The secretary says that her boss would like to see this matter settled without a complaint being filed, and he’d like to sit down with me and my neighbor to reconcile the problem.

I am told to report to the courthouse on the following Saturday morning, which I do. I am ushered into the D.A.'s office. Conspicuously, he does not rise to greet me. He motions for me to sit, and I do. There is no sign of my neighbor.

“Son,” the D.A. begins, “I understand you and your neighbor have a little problem. I expect he’ll be here soon, but before he gets here, there’s something I’d like you to know.”

I nod, trying to maintain an air of calm.

“Y’see, son,” he continues, “I don’t like long hair on a man. It just isn’t natural. But I want you to know that I am a fair man. When I look out the window of this courthouse and see a nigger with a white woman, well, that just makes me sick, but I want you to know that when that same nigger comes into any courtroom where I’m the D.A., that nigger gets the same treatment as a white man. And I just want you to know that. You can expect fair treatment from this office.”

I am in no way reassured.

As if on cue, my neighbor enters at just that moment. We have an uncomfortable and unsatisfying meeting … but the shooting ceases, as do the nuisance phone calls.

Later, I learn that my neighbor had been the D.A.'s campaign manager. I also learn, from a student who works in the courthouse, that the D.A. had told my neighbor that if he didn’t knock off the harassment, he’d have to let my next complaint go through, and that would embarrass him politically.

Welcome to the world of grown-ups, where they don’t always know what they’re doing. Or where they know what they’re doing all too well.

More than 30 years ago, that was, but the attitudes he expressed that day are still very much alive. Occasionally, they bubble up, and everyone becomes frantic to turn the heat down and get the pot back to simmering, to get us all back to the pretense that those attitudes are just quaint vestiges of another time, bad thoughts once held by men now transformed into cute and harmless old gargoyles.

Everyone, it seems, wants to pretend that the pledge I made to my baby daughter has been realized.

But, as William Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Note, for instance, the language contained in a title search I received as part of a 2003 sale of a house we owned in Sacramento. Recorded on March 23, 1948 (the year Strom Thurmond was running for president of these United States on a segregationist platform), it reads, in part: “No persons of a race other than the White or Caucasian race shall use or occupy any structure or any lot in said subdivision; provided, however, that nothing herein contained shall prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race domiciled with an owner or tenant.”

Though such covenants no longer have the force of law, though my wife and I worked with thousands of others to pass the Rumford Fair Housing Act in 1964, the language of segregation lies there like a snake ready to strike any buyer or seller with our chronological proximity to the legacy that continues to keep us divided, whether we’re selling our homes, or merely going out to buy a carpet.