|Michael D. Yates, “Revelation” (29 October 2005); and “Mobilization” (13 November 2005)|
It was a mid-Sunday afternoon in late Winter. We had just finished our match, and I was disappointed with my poor performance. For some reason I could not prevent my left wrist from turning over when I released my bowling bowl, and this caused the ball to hook disastrously to the right. My teammates groaned as my scores plummeted about 40 pins below my average and our chances of winning the league championship melted away. Luckily it wasn’t a cutthroat league, so they commiserated as I packed away my equipment and put on my coat to leave. As I passed by the manager’s desk, I glanced up at the television set on the wall. A professional basketball game was in progress, and I, a basketball junky, stopped to watch. The Chicago Bulls were playing the Boston Celtics. I hated the Celtics and their rabid fans and arrogant general manager and former coach, Red Auerbach. I was gratified to see that the Bulls’ star, Michael Jordan, was playing a spectacular game, on his way to scoring more than 60 points in what turned out to be a double overtime Celtics victory.
Another man was watching the game, along with his young son. I recognized him as an average bowler and delivery truck driver, something of a loudmouth with a higher opinion of his bowling skills than his ability warranted. Normally, I would have ignored him, but Jordan’s great game was so exciting that I just had to say something about it. So I remarked, “Boy, isn’t he an amazing player.” This innocent remark sent the man into a tirade. “That nigger’s not the best player. The best player is that white guy, Larry Bird.” Now, Johnstown is a racist town. It is impossible to go into a bar in a white neighborhood and not hear the word “nigger” within 30 minutes. While warming up before a basketball pickup game, one of my students commented that he liked the Boston Celtics because they were the “white team.” In 1922, the mayor of Johnstown actually ordered all black residents who had not lived in the town for at least five years to leave. Black men had been recruited to work in the city by the steel companies in the wake of the bitter 1919 strike, and the mayor issued his order after an incident involving a black person and the police. It is not known exactly how many African Americans left town, but the growth of the black population stopped. Today, blacks comprise less than 3% of the city’s residents.
Yet even though I have experienced open racism numerous times in Johnstown, I was startled by the this man’s vehemence. His face had turned red, and the veins on his neck were showing. I said, “What difference does skin color make? Jordan is a great player. Period.” He glared at me and yelled, “Don’t tell me about the niggers. I lived near them. I know what they’re like. They’re no fucking good.” I looked down at his son and said, “Hey, you’re really setting a fine example for your kid. He’ll grow up to be a bigot just like you.” At this, he lost his composure completely and said, “Listen, four eyes, I’ll knock your fucking glasses off. I don’t give a fuck who you are.” I noticed that no one at the desk was making any effort to defuse this situation. So I just said, “Go ahead and hit me if you want to.” He didn’t, and I picked up my bag and left.
These days, there are those, especially on the right, who say that we have overcome racism, and it is time for minorities to stop moaning about it and get on with their lives. I have no doubt whatever that these persons have spent very little time in the bars and bowling alleys of our towns and cities. My antagonist’s racism was disgustingly blatant, but no more so than that of millions of others. A faculty member at my school once complained in the faculty dining room that it was a shame that his daughter could not get free dental care at the University’s dental clinic when all of the “niggers” could. At least I helped to deny this man tenure.
Of course, most racism is more subtle, so woven into the fabric of everyday life that most whites just take it for granted. It crosses all classes, but that of white workers is the saddest and says the most about how this economic system deforms our personalities. The man who confronted me in the bowling alley was a delivery truck driver, doing menial labor at low wages. He obviously had been poor as a child. Yet he hated the poorest and most exploited of all workers. He had been led to believe that black people are the lowest of the low, and since he grew up with them, he must be awfully low himself. This filled him with shame, but he dealt with this shame by coming to think that black persons must in some sense be responsible for not only their own misery but his as well. His hatred transformed shame into superiority, a feeling encouraged by other whites, not least of whom were employers who used racism to drive a wedge between those whose alliance would be most dangerous to their power.
It is hard for me to think of the incident in the bowling alley without remembering the minstrel show and all of the other examples set for me by teachers, friends, clergy, and other adults. My college biology teacher, for example, said that if a white woman had a “black” child, there must have been a “nigger in the woodpile.” The very geography of my hometown was imbued with racism. I won’t deny that progress in race relations has been made, but the white suburban kids who fill my classes are still writing racist graffiti on the bathroom walls and still fuming about welfare as a code for racism in their essays. Just how different is their upbringing from mine? White people are raised to be racists, and it takes a mighty effort to overcome this. I know. I’m still trying.
Michael D. Yates is associate editor of Monthly Review. He was for many years professor of economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is author of Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs: Employment and Unemployment in the United States (1994), Why Unions Matter (1998), and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global System (2004), all published by Monthly Review Press.