Monday, June 30, 2008

Of long-ago loves and loose latter-day lips.

We'll start with a little trip down memory lane. When I was 17 and still a sweet and trusting young man, I fell head over heels for a Jewish girl named Zandra. (The ethnicity is relevant here.*) I thought we were soul-mates in every respect, from our spooky-similar tastes in jazz and literature right down to the fact that we shared the same date of birth—March 1, 1950. Naturally, this meant that our love couldn't be allowed to last.

Zandra warned me from the outset that there really wasn't anywhere for the relationship to go, given her parents' image of the boy she was "meant" to marry: First and foremost, as well as last and utmost, he would have to be Jewish. But being Steve, I insisted on setting myself up for failure and heartbreak anyway, and we managed to hold our star-crossed** love affair together, in mostly clandestine fashion, for almost a year. In the end, her parents, who were not only Jewish but practicing Orthodox Jews, so abhorred the prospect of their daughter pairing off with a gentile that her dad actually planned and executed a top-secret exodus late in her senior year of high school, spiriting my beloved away to another neighborhood in the dead of night so that we could no longer see or even locate each other. (Note to younger readers: Believe it or not, there was a time before AIM, texting and Facebook.)

In postscript, I should mention that four years later I ran into Zandra one evening in the Brooklyn College cafeteria—she'd recently enrolled to get her Master's at night—and I couldn't help noticing the glittering rock on her left hand. She smiled sheepishly. I smiled back, though I'm not sure my eyes participated. We both kind of shrugged. "It is what it is" wasn't yet in vogue in those days, but it should have been, as it was the perfect expression for the moment.

The thing is, Zandra's parents' objections went beyond religion. She had explained that they harbored deep prejudices against Italians in particular, whom they viewed as being immoral, vaguely subhuman, and frankly dangerous. Whenever Zandra tried to edge into the subject with them, her father would pound his fist and start thundering names like "Capone! Luciano!" It didn't help matters that one of the major New York crime bosses of the era also happened to be named Salerno, as in "Fat Tony."

Apart from the aforementioned heartbreak, I had two levels of reaction to all this. As someone who had long ago rejected race and ethnicity in my own life, I resented being lumped together with the Sons of Italy en masse, especially when it was being done to tar me with the same brush. But on another level, the human level, I understood Zandra's father's fears. Though his attitude seemed unfair and dismissive of my individuality, it did not seem wholly unreasonable in a big-picture/experiential sense, because when you heard Italian names in the news in those days, there was often some sinister Mob connection. Certainly there was no shortage of high-profile hoods whose names ended in vowels. Even in just a local sense, it was clear that too many of the rough-hewn, tee-shirt-wearing Italian kids from Flatbush made a favorite sport out of picking on the docile Jewish boys coming home from Yeshiva. In that context, could I really have expected at least some folks—above all, those with a strong sense of their own ethnicity and shared cultural values—to feel differently about "my people"?

And that's my long-winded anecdotal way of wading into the latest Don Imus flap. No doubt you've heard by now, so I'll treat this in "second-day format" (you can get the particulars here). According to the Authorized View of the matter, Imus once again inserted foot firmly in mouth, then arguably made things worse the next day by offering an explanation that not a few observers considered pretty bogus. And yet I find myself wondering—applying the same standards of judgment that my teenage sweetheart's dad employed in critiquing Italians—what was so cosmically unforgivable about what Imus said in the first place, even if he made no subsequent effort at CYA? What is the color of many of the professional athletes who break the law, after all? And wasn't it the Rev. Jesse Jackson himself who (in)famously conceded*** that if he hears footsteps behind him at night, he feels relieved when he turns around and sees a bunch of white kids?

Look, by now you probably know my basic stance here. I'd much prefer that we abandon the entire concept of race. Just scrap it. Trouble is, we live in a society that has an obsessive-compulsive fascination with race in all its manifestations; a society that's determined to add an overlay of race/racism to any situation involving a diverse array of people, even when no plausible reason for that overlay readily suggests itself. So if we insist on giving race the exalted role that it clearly plays nowadays (and that it's sure to play much more of, as the 2008 presidential campaign heats up), then you cannot view it through a lens that selectively filters out the negative shadings.

Once again here, I'll be purposely provocative in making my point. The numbers tell us that, while blacks constitute just 12.4 percent of the overall U.S. population, they are arrested in just under half (47.7 percent) of the total number of murders nationwide. To put it another way, in 2005, blacks were seven times more likely than whites to be arrested and prosecuted for a homicide. That skew has remained fairly constant, ebbing or flowing a few points one way or another, for more than a quarter-century, according to breakdowns by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. This could indicate a grievously racist system. That is in fact the explanation that receives the most frequent play in mainstream media. It could also indicate that the social dynamic acting on young blacks is such that they come of age having a lower boiling point than their white counterparts. That possibility is somewhat more controversial, but is still acceptable in public discourse, as it basically blames the environment in which many blacks are forced to live. There is, of course, a third possibility, and it's the one that you cannot publicly utter without being attacked, marginalized and ultimately silenced: that black Americans may have a lower innate boiling point, merely by virtue of being born black. In other words, there is something about being of the black race that makes you genetically more violent.

Let me restate: I am not saying that I believe this to be true. I'm merely saying to the folks who champion race—who talk endlessly about racial role models and glory in all the milestones, the first this and the best that—that you can't have it one way only (just as my own dad couldn't have it one way in talking about DiMaggio and Fermi; if he wanted to be identified with the stars, he had to be identified with the thugs, too). You can't go around picking and choosing the characteristics by which you want your race or ethnic heritage to be represented. You take the whole mix, or you take none of it.

Which is why I say again: Let's have none of it. Or let's leave the Don Imuses (and parents of young girls like Zandra) alone, sad as that seems. No middle ground makes much sense.

* Yes, technically, I know, Judaism is a religion, not an ethnicity. But in New York especially, many people of orthodox Jewish faith treat their religion more as an ethnic way of life that governs all aspects of lifestyle and social behavior.
** and, I might add, sexless. Zandra, the last of a dying (and now dead) breed, was committed to "saving herself" for her husband.
*** albeit with much chagrin.


Anonymous said...

"She had explained that they harbored deep prejudices against Italians in particular, whom they viewed as being immoral, vaguely subhuman, and frankly dangerous."

One woman's trash is another woman's treasure. I am on the other side of the spectrum. I actually went looking for an Italian mate, because all my best friends happen to be Italian. My best memories are of Italy. I even got married in Venice (Italy not California). I am not ethically Italian. I get what you are saying, but it can go in the other direction too. My husband is Swiss/Italian, but when he was in banking eyebrows were raised, because of his last name. The Sopranos were at the height of its popularity and did not help him by the way. He had bank CEO’s ribbing him about “leg breaking” in the family if a loan was overdue.

So you had your own "Romeo and Juliet" romance without the dying part.

Steve Salerno said...

No, Anon, not to be mawkish or melodramatic, but I think something definitely died back there.

Cal said...


I'm curious...did Jewish people in NY ever get tagged as gangsters because of Lansky, Siegel and Greenbaum? And what would your girlfriend's father have said about that?

My parents would have had the same uproar if I had seriously dated a non-black girl. They were children of segregation and thought it would be difficult to raise bi-racial children. Since court-ordered desegregation caused integration of the school system I went through, I remember being attracted to some of the white girls (as well as the black girls) growing up. But I knew it would be difficult to live at home and pursue it.

Steve Salerno said...

You know, Cal, you raise a very interesting point that for some reason I never thought of. And I don't know if you sensed this already in asking the question--which is why you ask it, perhaps--but if you did, you're right: The perception of the Jewish Mafia was totally different. In fact, I always got the feeling that there was even a sense of pride about Jews who'd reached the dizzying heights of Mobsterdom--sort of like, "We beat those wops at their own game now, didn't we? [wink]." I'm not saying that Zandra's parents felt that way; I never spoke to them, and it never occurred to me to ask her about it. But I knew many Jewish people through the years in my section of Flatbush, and there was definitely no shame at all about that aspect of the American Jewish experience. I think they thought it was "cool." Whereas my dad, certainly, was deeply ashamed of what "some Italians" had done to make their way in America.

Citizen Deux said...

And yet if we slice the crime statistics another way, by socioi-economics, we will find almost all the incarcerated being in a certain class - with over representation among certain ethnic groups.

It is the danger of the media, which reports things as they like, that analysis is sliced to their preference. We are presently in a post-mortem of the 2nd ammendment decision in which newspapers are quick to restate the number of deaths from a firearm across the nation.

Is it more relveant to report a criminal by their ethnicity or by their educational and socio-economic background.

Item 1 - A 25 year old black male was arrested for first degree murder in the death of his estranged girlfriend

Item 2 - A 25 year old, unemployed, male high school dropout was arrested for first degree murder in the death of his estranged girlfriend

Which is more relvant?

Steve Salerno said...

They're very good points.

Mike Cane said...

>>>it basically blames the environment in which many blacks are forced to live



When the post-Rodney King riots broke out and subsequent news reports showed the "'hood" the rioters lived in, I freaking boiled-- and still do!

They weren't high-rises; they were single-family HOMES, goddammit.

Something I never had -- and still don't have!

Go on, "force" me to live in one of those homes. Turn me into a future rioter.

And when the Cabrini Green Houses in Chicago were being lamented? I pointed out to a friend the two towers built in midtown "set aside for artists" (BS!). I asked how come people who lived in *those* felt grateful instead of "oppressed"?

Here's a video I ran into today and I think it says it all.

I'm really shocked to see you attributing something other than *personal responsibility* to people.

As for arrest stats, I'd like to know the truth behind them. I think blacks are automatically given harsher times than whites.

I'd like to see white CEOs and other cheats start getting those sentences!

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, you're killing the messenger here. I am not "attributing" black crime to anything, at least not in my own voice. I'm simply reporting the three basic story lines that explain black crime (only two of which are permitted to be openly explored--that is, the ones that shift the blame to environmental factors). I happen to agree with you about white-collar crime, and in fact--though I can't link to it here off-hand--I believe I wrote an item in which I proposed that, if crimes were ranked in order of their impact on society as a whole, many white-collar felons would receive the death penalty ahead of murderers and kidnappers. (That's assuming we're going to have a death penalty, which is a separate argument.)

sassy sasha said...

i knew there was a reason i liked your blog, steve, and now when i see you playing trent reznor i know what it was!

Nini said...

Point 1 - A group of friends or acquaintances who live near each other or otherwise spend a lot of time together are likely to start behaving in the same way. This is especially true of teenagers but can carry through to adulthood.*

Point 2 - There was a population dynamics model set up in which two colours of squares were given 'preferences' of neighbours and then allowed to move around. So a yellow square would 'prefer', with a probability of not much greater than 50%, to be next to other yellow squares. The system surprisingly quickly began to form clumps of yellow squares, modelling societies of people who aren't racist but prefer to live around people who they can relate to, ie, people of their own colour.

These two points mean that if there were troubles with a colour group to begin with, the undesirable behaviour is likely to be passed on to other people in the group, who will likely be of the same colour.

So I guess I'm agreeing with your second option. This is not, however, to take away individual responsibility.

*I'm not an expert on social behaviour in any way, this just seems to me to be something that is true.