Like many Americans, I was surprised to plug into YouTube and watch Seinfeld star Michael Richards scream racist epithets at African-American hecklers in The Laugh Factory.
And then I wasn’t. The only thing stunning about Kramer’s racist rant is that it happened in public, and someone got it on a grainy digital camera. That’s not because I knew that Richards secretly harbored some smoldering resentment toward African-Americans. It’s because most of us do, even though we know it’s wrong. Kramer just let the racist inside of him take over.
“I’m not a racist,” he said, echoing the dubious denials of actor and “Passion of the Christ” director Mel Gibson, who unloosed his own anti-semetic rant during a DUI arrest earlier this year. If that’s not racism, we’re right to ask, what is?
Are we really naive enough to believe that racism died when the “whites only” signs guarding public drinking fountains were junked and the front of the bus became accessible to all passengers? The proclaimed end of segregation simply shoved prejudice underground, relegating it to hushed conversations of like-minded bigots — and, as I learned firsthand, into the public school system.
There’s a more useful reaction to these outbursts than horror and disgust: it’s to talk about race in America today, and consider what within us continues to feed hatred, mistrust and suspicion of others. Public schools’ continual and unspoken segregation of their classrooms are a good place to start.
I grew up in Berkeley, Calif., a racially diverse subset of America’s melting pot. Students in my classes spoke dozens of different languages. My friends were as often African-American, latino, asian or arab as they were white. Until high school, we all seemed to get along just fine.
Then I walked into my first ninth grade class and noticed that most of my junior high friends of a different skin color had disappeared. My classes were full of white kids, the result of academic “tracking” that split us up by test scores and, ultimately, race. A few weeks later, I learned just how different this world would be.
I’d arrived on the courtyard early that morning, eager to maximize the time I had to socialize before class started. I was alone.
Suddenly, I heard footsteps. I turned to see a foot flying at my face, my assailant in a mid-air jump kick. I dodged it and lifted my head again to see a fist headed for my left temple. That blow landed. Hard.
The aim of the “knock-out club” was to put down a subject with a single punch. When I maintained consciousness, that round was over, and the two kids whose turn it was ran back to the line of participants watching the whole thing. The gang attacked 36 other students in the first month of my freshman year of high school. The assaults were all black-on-white.
But here’s what made me understand racism for the first time: I knew the guy who’d punched me. We had eight-grade history together. We were both troublemakers, class clowns. Without ever really crossing the line into friendship, harassing our teacher was something we did together. As he ran off that day, he muttered “Never liked you anyway, peckerwood,” which I took as both an acknowledgment that we knew each other and a half-hearted attempt to apologize — or at least explain why he’d socked me.
I survived the rest of high school without getting jumped, partly because I learned how to watch my back, stay in large groups and stay away from the parts of the segregated campus where I knew I didn’t belong. But I could feel the racist inside me growing.
I knew it was wrong, and I still do. How could I blame an entire people for a single incident? Didn’t they have a right to hate me, anyway? It was the members of my race who’d enslaved, oppressed and marginalized theirs. Intellectually, I knew I shouldn’t dislike or fear anyone because their skin color was different from mine. But I was still afraid.
I spent the coming years crossing the street to avoid big groups of young African-Americans in baggy
pants and struggling to remind myself that I was just as likely to be the victim of a crime by some white drug addict as by someone of a different race: more likely after I left the diverse San Francisco Bay Area, in fact.
I buried the racist inside me, like Kramer did before the Laugh Factory and Gibson did before he got drunk and mad at the world. But I know it’s still there, as it must be for millions of people of all colors who seize upon the obvious differences to make themselves feel superior or simplify their confusing lives.
Richards and Gibson deserved the castigation they received. Their humiliation helps us all heal and reminds us that neither integration nor affirmative action has solved this widespread problem. But there is more we can do to bring people in this society together.
It starts with keeping people together in the classroom, when they’re still too young to hate.