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RACE THOUGHTS/CflrZ Schiffinan IT'S BAD ENOUGH I'm a nigger, but I've got to be ugly, too!" Words overheard a few months ago on a Canarsie-bound L train in the New York City subway: the speaker a teenaged black girl, talking to three or four friends on their way home from school. The other girls laughed, as she did; her tone was not bitter or angry but communicated a rueful good humour, as though she were acknowledging a joke that life had played at her expense. How had we come fuU circle, to the most deprecatory word anyone , including a black, could use to describe a dark-skinned person of African origin—a word that, more than any other, echoes the experience of slavery? I, a white person, had spent over twenty-five years working for black equaUty, first as a state and federal civU rights investigator and then as a writer and fund-raiser for a wide range of nationaUy known black nonprofit organizations. Had I—and the hundreds or thousands of whites like me who had taken the civU rights struggle as our own, as America's most important unfinished domestic business— just been wasting our time? Even more unsettling to contemplate, had we been doing harm when we thought we were doing good? I had grown up in an ethnically mixed neighborhood in Manhattan's upper West Side, had at least one Negro kid in all my classes right through high school, had known Negro and Puerto Rican kids who played ball on our primarily Jewish block after school. I had had a black roommate and a black close friend in college, and prior to working in civil rights, I had been a counselor in treatment centers for mentally disturbed or predelinquent adolescents in Dobbs Ferry, New York, and Hamden, Connecticut, where many of the kids in residence were black. I had also worked as a child welfare case worker, supervising the placement of state wards, many of them black, in Connecticut foster homes and treatment institutions. I thought, in other words, that I was pretty knowledgeable about the way Connecticut blacks lived. What I discovered when I began work as a state civil rights investigator in Connecticut in 1968 was a society that was almost as segregated by custom as the South had been segregated by law. In the arms and armaments industries that were among Connecticut's principal employers, and in the other traditional industries that lined the Naugatuck Valley, black employees had been confined to jobs as jani146 · The Missouri Review tors or to the lowest and dirtiest occupations as unskilled laborers. Their lines of employment and seniority were kept separate from the lines of white employees, and the unions did nothing to bridge that separation. Just the contrary: office and sales jobs were all but hermetically sealed against blacks. Employment discrimination was complemented by housing discrimination that was, if anything, more absolutely rigid. A New Haven suburb, East Haven, only five minutes away by car and ten by city bus from a large concentration of blacks, had zero black residents. School boundaries were drawn in conformity with racially frozen residential patterns so that virtually all-black or all-white "neighborhood" elementary schools were the rule. Most local police and fire departments, including the state police, were hostile to employing any blacks at all and threw up barrier after barrier against hiring them. Employment testing exploded into massive use just as equal employment legislation went into effect. I came to understand that despite the civil rights revolution in the South and the sympathy it won for Southern blacks fighting legal segregation, in the North most blacks, although the pejorative word was rarely used, were still thought of and treated as "niggers." I also found a black community devastated by its experience of exclusion, hardly prepared to take advantage of the equality of treatment the new civil rights laws purported to guarantee. There were some blacks, frequently light-skinned and the scions of a black elite, who were ready to take immediate advantage of the opportunities opened by equal employment legislation. Some of them moved into government work to help enforce...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1548-9930
Print ISSN
0191-1961
Pages
pp. 146-155
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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