Sunday, March 30, 2003

I've been thinking again over the last few days about why I've always been more comfortable with and had more respect for working class blacks than for poor whites. The simplest answer is that I grew up with one and not the other. But lower middle class whites lived with the assumption that they should be better off than they were because of their race. They had pretensions to authority. Their insecurity meant the kids couldn't back down. To back down meant humiliation. It was an inflexible code; to a large degree it still is. White kids, the boys at least, couldn't laugh at themselves, could find no easy humor in their lives, because they were being laughed at already, by other whites. But for a black kid on the street, as an old girlfriend pointed out to me years ago, life was and is always about backing down, and knowing when and how to do it. What expectations did they have? In the streets the stakes are real.

I'd known this all my life but the first time I thought about it, rather than merely taking it for granted was a few years after I moved to New York. I was walking through a subway station at night, though a large open section, between one staircase and another. The only other person around was a black kid, late teenager, walking in the opposite direction, coming out of the staircase I was heading towards and towards the one I'd just left. We saw each other immediately. The moment I saw him I switched without thinking into the sway -not swagger- that I'd learned as a child but hadn't felt myself do in a while. I was nervous but it felt good. I hunched my shoulders and head slightly forward and down, and looked as I walked alternately ahead and at the ground. He was doing roughly the same thing; we were still about 30 feet apart. As we got closer nothing changed, the same sway, eyes down and up, walking to pass or meet in the middle of the room. We were both tense, and still nobody else was anywhere nearby. At about 6 feet away I looked up at him and nodded, without smiling or even realizing that I had done it.

He returned the nod. I had just backed down, as I realized I was always going to do, but I had shown him respect without fear, and he had shown me respect in return. Neither of us had known the intent of the other, and we still didn't. But I had told him two things: one, that whatever my earlier thoughts I did not want trouble now; and two, that I could defend myself. I felt no anger from him or towards him before and none after.

I haven't read Jarhead and I probably won't, but I want to take back some my comments about Anthony Swofford. Maybe Swofford started out being the kind of asshole I remember, but that's not what he describes in his piece in the Times Magazine today. He treats the press with the contempt it deserves, and violence (and the contempt) with all the homoerotic overtones it requires. But his violence is the violence of survival and nothing else. Everything else is a shrug. Maybe it's only war -Swofford is writing about 1991- but it's also true that times have changed. The races are mixing and so is their anger. Eminem makes the case obvious enough. In a very real sense it's sad, but perhaps now when angry white kids call each other nigger, it's because they know that's all they are. Integration is going well at the bottom of the ladder.

[But does that mean the white kids are becoming more like the black ones or the other way around? What does in mean that they listen to Ja Rule and hear and understand the same things? As kids have told me, the streets are a lot harder than they used to be. The life is colder and a lot more dangerous.]

I've never thought of myself in any way as black, only a white man of some sort who grew up in a black neighborhood. It's a part of my past, and given the stupidity of most comments around the issue of race these days, an important one.

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