Race, Rage, and O.J. in America

"How does every nigger joke begin?" A friend asked me this a little while ago. His wordless answer was a quick, nervous glance over the shoulder. It was a joke about bigot jokes, a little reminder that race remains as divisive in America as it is in South Africa. That's why there is now a war against affirmative action and why, on the other hand, polite liberal speech is choked by such awkward descriptives as "people of color" and "African-American." (Believe me, whites never use these bone-in-throat phrases in relaxed conversation among themselves.) The only thing that has changed since the civil-rights movement, my friend's joke suggests, is that today the people who tell O.J. jokes have to check their backs. What resentment this must cause among old-time bigots, who can recall a time when they didn't have to worry about what they said or who heard them say it. I, too, remember those days in the mid-'60s when, along Pulaski Street in our rural Long Island town, the Polish kids would laughingly call Negroes "charred knees," from cherny, the Slavic word for black. Riverhead was only about an hour from Manhattan, but we might as well have been living in Salem's Lot. Good Samaritans who'd pick up my mother and me along forlorn country roads and give us rides to town would exhale bourbon- breath'd conspiracy theories connecting Communist Jews in New York City with colored rioters. The kids were no different: "You and your mom walked in front of the Blue Bird?" a friend from my Boy Scout troop once asked, awestruck, when I mentioned that the two of us had passed by the town's main colored bar on our way to the Plaid Stamp redemption center. "And you weren't afraid of getting shotgunned?" In the back of my pre-adolescent mind, I thought my family was morally superior to these hicks and their prejudices, but after Watts I'd get whiffs of paranoia at my relatives' suburban barbecues, as the grown-ups talked about the need to lock up the Negroes in special camps. In those apocalyptic times, they saw an inevitable race war approaching, which, to anyone young, was something frighteningly far-fetched, impossibly nightmarish. Come to think of it, though, if in 1965 kids my age had been led into a school assembly and shown a film of what would happen in America over the next 30 years, we'd have thought we were watching some scary science-fiction movie. Some things haven't changed since I lived in Riverhead. Today we've dispensed with the old illusions and don't try to hide what we are a nation of enemies, a discordant choir of hecklers denouncing one group or another. Not all that long ago, I chatted one afternoon with a Croatian roofer working on the building I used to live in. Without warning, the man wheeled our conversation from terra cotta tiles to Serbia, and then to the Jews. Suddenly Pulaski Street seemed only a block away, a street with no end to it.Oklahoma City, whose April bombing is one of those things that would have been unimaginable 30 years ago, is the latest dateline to enjoy 15 minutes of infamy. The town became synonymous with what the media call "the Heartland," a spiritual time zone from which, we are told, come most of the nation's corn and all of its "core values." So when bombs or postal employees go off there, these events carry more gravity and cast long metaphorical shadows across our editorial pages. In its own red-bricked way, Riverhead was certainly Heartlandish, but despite its horizons of potato, cauliflower and strawberry fields, despite its stalagmites of whitewashed wooden church steeples, Riverhead never struck me as a particularly ennobling place. This had something to do with its kids and their nigger jokes, with public-school teachers who warned us not to turn our backs on Orientals, and nuns who told their students that Jews who converted to Catholicism would go to hell anyway. These were core, smalltown American values, all right, but not the kind that are so reverently down linked from television commentators. Our mystical Heartland, whether located on the Midwestern steppes, in the hollows of Appalachia or by redwood-rimmed bays, is rooted in narcotizing myths about Americans who are poor but hard-working, naive yet honest. These salt-of-the-earth folk exist in Sandberg poems, on the muraled walls of old post offices or in the music of Aaron Copland, whose modernist fanfares spoke of a generous country, an America of handshakes, forgiveness and sad lullabies. How gone even that mythical country seems now, its humble cabins replaced by bitter trailer parks, their chimneys and curls of blue smoke given way to satellite dishes. When you listen to Appalachian Songs, Rodeo or Billy the Kid, you hear a rural America the way hopeful people back in the '30s and '40s wanted it to be, a heartland that only an idealistic Jew from Brooklyn could envision: a place without fear, prejudice and greed."Hey, no niggers in here!" The bartender's voice carried the kind of twangy imperative you mostly hear in movies about the old South, but on this particular night last summer it rang in sullen earnest. The place was one of those Avenue I bars in Lancaster that still cater to the vanishing ranchers and bikers of northern L.A. County. The speaker stood in his white boxer shorts, a dress shirt and a tuxedo jacket. This man, who obviously enjoyed a good joke and was a dead ringer for Wyatt Earp, hadn't aimed his words at flesh and blood, but at the large-screen apparition above the pool table of O.J. Simpson, a phantom he banished with the wave of a TV remote. I said nothing but hunched over the jukebox in compromised silence. What good would it do to complain? I might as well have told Attila the Hun to take a Course in Miracles workshop. The current climate of anger is both familiar and new. At a gas station, I watched as a homeless white man was told to shove off by the cashier; "Go away," the cashier commanded in some offshore accent. "Go somewhere else!" But this foreigner lit a fire in the panhandler, whose voice suddenly lost its defeated tone. "You go back where you came from," he said. "You took my job!" I even found that kind of anger during a Croatian festival last year. I felt a little uncomfortable about the event before I even got there. For one thing, the festival is always held at Alpine Village, a creepy little piece of the Fatherland in the U.S. where you can buy Wehrmacht-music cassettes and gaudy beer steins. The nasty political metaphor continues, for Croatia, where part of my family came from, was a German puppet state during WWII; the fact that the annual Croatian Festival is held in Alpine Village's beer garden the very lap of Bavarian kitsch hardly dresses up the matter in cashmere. Nor was my unease allayed when I passed a table selling iconlike paintings of long-dead Croatian prelates and politicians and of Ante Pavelic, the Nazi-installed tyrant who ruled during the Ustashi terror. I tried to let it all ride, though, and waited with my wife and a friend for the appearance of Zhena, a group of Angeleno women who sing Croatian folksongs. Before they came on, though, the MC announced that a congressional candidate wanted to say a few words. This guy, Joe, was in his 30s, from the American Independent Party and wore a blue shirt with the sleeves rolled up, as though he was in the mood to do some work. He soon let us know the kind of job he had in mind. "If our government can spend millions of dollars and send soldiers to support Israel and Somalia," Joe said in a voice that had probably never laughed, "it can do the same to defend white Christian civilization here in America." Maybe it was the beer in my stomach, or maybe it was because there was no jukebox to hide behind, but enough was enough. "Fascist!" I yelled as loudly as I could, expecting to get shouted down (or worse) by the guy who'd once fixed my roof or by the people buying pictures of Ante Pavelic. But nothing happened, and I was pleasantly surprised to even hear a few people boo the AIP man when he slunk offstage. I don't know if Joe stuck around to hear Zhena or, for that matter, what his music tastes ran to. Maybe he'd startle me with an unexpected sensitivity -- perhaps old Joe was even a private admirer of Aaron Copland and his big-sky anthems. It wouldn't help anything, though, for at some point, when no one was looking, music ceased being our common language, and all we're left with today is an awful raging silence.

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