Jewish World Review June 30, 2003 / 30 Sivan 5763
What the Supreme Court doesn't know about race
http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | I am sitting here tying to think of when I became race-conscious. And I can't. Maybe I never did - another of my numerous failings. I've gone all the way back to childhood, to the kitchen behind the shoe store on Texas Avenue in Shreveport. And I can't find that one decisive moment, that loss of innocence recorded in portentous tones in one Southern novel after another.
Oh, I understood there were differences between people, all right. I could see, after all. More to the point, I could hear:
In the kitchen and family circle the world came in Yiddish.
And I went to Hebrew School before I did public school - still another domain, still another language. No big deal. A child switches back and forth naturally; our brains aren't hard-wired yet, not as closed-off.
Once you left the back of the store, you were in Henry's domain. Henry Johnson's, that is.
A big black man with huge shoulders and the whitest teeth you ever saw and his own, stiff-legged way of walking. I wouldn't realize for the longest time it was because he had artificial legs. Even after you knew that, you tended to forget. Making a delivery one time, I dropped the edge of a crate we were lifting onto his foot - hard. "Henry!" I cried. "Are you hurt?" And he just sm-i-i-led.
Henry was my immigrant father's employee, guide, co-conspirator, shadow, light, straight man, major domo . . He gave me my first lessons in Southern manners - how to say sir and ma'am, and not interrupt, and get up when a lady comes in, and speak up and look at people when you talk to 'em, boy . . He knew the lay of the land.
He spoke much the same language as most of our customers, who came in various shades of dark, but his dialect had a rarefied twist to it, a touch of Creole. He was a Negro, but that was so far down on the list of things he was, it was scarcely defining. Mainly he was Henry Johnson. He died a few days before my father did during the unbearable summer of 1980; he was still scouting the territory ahead for the old man.
And, oh yes, there was one other minority represented in my child's world. You'd see one of them come into the shop now and then looking for a bargain. They seemed so so stiff, so clipped, so hand-mute. So well dressed. Like a picture out of a book. Like Dick and Jane and Spot, Unreal. They spoke their own brand of English, not quite like the kind on the radio but still intelligible. It was homier, more natural. Later I would realize it was cultivated Suthuhn.
What a surprise when I went off to public school and saw how many of them there were. On my first day, I went out at noon to catch the bus home, thinking school was over. A teacher spotted me, and guided me to the big, pale green cafeteria. She sat me down, and another lady fixed me a cheese sandwich. American cheese on white bread with mayonnaise. And a glass of milk. Talk about bland. But it was good. I was hungry. Even better was the realization that these people were going to take care of me and not let me wander off. I hadn't realized they could be so . kind. Food is a great bond.
Strange thing about school: The black people stopped where it began. Nobody seemed to notice. It was the way it was supposed to be. Like a good boy, I (a) didn't think about it, (b) understood you weren't supposed to think about it, much less talk about it, and (c) can even remember defending segregation when I went to a summer camp up north.
Still, even by then I'd noticed how awkward it was when the black kids in back of the trolley got off at their stop a block before we did, and started walking to nowhere. You couldn't see their school from the street. But you knew it wouldn't be as nice. You could see the start of the road they took downhill; it was where the pavement stopped. I can still see the pebbles and dull red clay. The way I can still taste that cheese sandwich. Maybe that was the moment of realization. And no matter what words you said about segregation afterward, and believed in a rhetorical kind of way, you knew it wasn't right, that race didn't matter. Not that way, not that purely arbitrary way. Not the way language does.
It must have been in junior high that I said something about it. I don't even remember what it was, I was so unaware. (Henry hadn't taught me all the taboos, after all.) Whatever it was, it seemed to inflame a boy named Joe. He said I was A Traitor To My Race. I was puzzled. It was the first time I'd heard the phrase. It took me a while to get my mind around it. How could you be a traitor to . your race? A traitor to your country, your cause, maybe, but to your race ? And if Joe was a representative of my race, did I want to belong to it? How do you get out of this club?
Now, roughly ages later, I sit and read a Supreme Court decision that says race matters after all. It matters so much that you need a certain number of this race and that race in law school classes in order to, yes, break down artificial racial categories. You've got to discriminate in order to end discrimination. It may be the funniest Supreme Court decision I've ever read, if unintentionally so.
What's more, you need a certain number of black students in law schools in order to form a "critical mass," whatever that is, but it doesn't take as many Hispanic students to do so, and it takes even fewer American Indians. I give up. Here is still another foreign language. Only this one doesn't make sense, as if it were written for some purely abstract world that exists out in space, or only in law books.
It's all so much hocus-pocus to me, like the idea of race itself so long ago on Texas Avenue. I sit here reading Sandra Day O'Connor's majority opinion, and I'm puzzled. I can't get my mind around it. I laugh out loud here and there, and think: Shoot, I knew better than that when I was 6 years old.
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