On Race

It's 1984. My friends and I, five of us in all, are walking in the annual March of Dimes Walk-A-Thon. Absorbed in our own fun, we’d accidentally begun walking a full hour before the official starting time, so we’ve got the route to ourselves. It’s a beautiful late spring Sunday morning, and we’re having ourselves the kind of time any group of 19 year olds will have: walking, running, playing around, being young, being together. About a mile into the walk, the route takes us into the South Side. The South Side of Syracuse is a predominantly black area; it's the kind of area my parents always tell me to stay away from. As we walk along Salina Street, Patrick stops walking suddenly, and says “oh God, look.” We follow his stare and see, a block or so ahead, a gathering of men, black men, clustered around a parked car. One of the men has a baseball bat. I do a quick mental inventory: there are more of us than them, and though I doubt any of us are fighters we’re usually pretty good at bluffing our way out of trouble. Besides, Salina is a busy street, so nobody would make any trouble with so much traffic going by. Despite these reassuring thoughts, my heart races, the mood of the morning changes and mob mentality takes over. The five of us become aware of and feed off of each other’s apprehension. Our pace slows, imperceptibly but steadily. By the time we cover half the distance to the group, we’re all agitated. My mouth is dry and I begin to sweat. My eyes never leave the baseball bat for more than a second or two. After what seems like an hour, we finally reach the men: a group of elderly black men outside enjoying the sun on a Sunday morning, dressed nattily for church. One man leans unsteadily on the bumper of the parked car, and I see that the baseball bat which held my attention so powerfully is actually a cane. The hand that grips it has long since passed 70 years old. We pass by the men, mumbling nervous replies to their friendly greetings, and continue on our way. As we round the next corner our tension breaks, We laugh at our foolishness for being afraid of a bunch of old men. It never once occurs to us – any of us – that it was foolish to be afraid of them just because they’re black. ~ I read once that Syracuse has the highest percentage of Italian–American citizens in North America. Almost all of my friends were Italian, and in fact I was the mutt because my father is only half Italian. I can claim a rich, multi-faceted ethnic heritage: wonderful food, strong family ties, gold velvet furniture, Louis Prima, and some truly elegant ways to swear. But the racism I grew up immersed in is the price I pay for all these wonderful things. I’d like to think that when we drove through the South Side (always through, never to) my parents warned me to lock the car door because they were acknowledging a simple economic reality: poverty-stricken areas where opportunities are limited are areas which breed crime and violence. But then I remember the school I attended is in a neighborhood every bit as poverty stricken as the South Side, yet in the thousands of times I rode through the North Side nobody ever cautioned me to so much as roll up my window. I walked to and from school every day for years, along North Side streets, without anyone being concerned about my safety. I guess Italian poverty is different than black poverty. ~ It’s not easy to recognize the parts of myself that are less than noble, and acknowledge them once they’ve made their presence known. My struggle with the racism I grew up with is constant, and I often revisit that day in 1984. It frightens me to wonder what other prejudices I have hidden beneath the surface which are strong, but not quite strong enough to break the surface. Yes, I struggle, and sometimes I lose, as I’m sure I’ll continue to lose in the future. But other times I win, and that’s a very sweet victory.

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