I learned about race relations in America at the kitchen table when I was little. I lived on and off with my Sicilian grandmother when I was a kid in a dinky little stucco apartment in a mediocre part of Los Angeles. She was a nurse. Her two best friends were a fellow nurse named Ruth, and one of the women who lived upstairs named Shelly. Ruth was a light reddish brown woman with high cheekbones from Louisiana. She said her people were a mix of white, black, and Cherokee. Shelly was a gorgeous slender six foot tall woman with seriously black skin – a real Grace Jones type. These three women would sit around the table drinking coffee talking about how they didn’t like the Mexicans who had begun to move in to the neighborhood. As a nation we have a long complicated history when it comes to race and class.
When my relatives in Miami were confronted with a large and sudden influx of Cubans to their Hialeah neighborhood they refused to attend Mass with the newcomers. Evidently my family members were in the vehement majority in the parish so the priest had to organize separate services for different groups. I was always amused by this turn of events since there’s no real cultural difference between Sicilians and Cubans. From the perspective of a New England Protestant or a Southern Baptist we’re all equally swarthy and suspect.
At my mom’s kitchen table in New Jersey in the 1970’s I remember adults talking about which neighborhood to move to. The key phrase used by the real estate lady at the time was “the wrong element” which evidently needed to be avoided at all costs. I don’t believe either the real estate woman or my parents were particularly racist in their everyday interactions with people. But when it came time to buy a house they acted as if they were dedicated members of the Klan. For them it was a financial decision that was too important to cloud with abstract concerns of social justice.
Culture plays out in irregular ways. There’s what’s right. And there’s what is. In some ways the two are gradually merging. It’s a long slow process with emergent winners and losers. America is now far more tolerant of all sorts of people than forty or fifty years ago. But we’re even more divided by class. Having any kind of nuanced conversation about any of this is so contentious that sensible people opt out of the public discussion. And so we each make our individual choices quietly in the real world while we hurl insults at each other anonymously on the Interwebs. So it goes…