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The Paradox of Race: Fences to Mend, Rivers to Cross

Photo by: Kate Sumbler | Creative Commons
Photo by: Kate Sumbler | Creative Commons, by klxadm

Last week's commemoration of the march to Selma threw into startling relief the paradox of racial reality in this country, not just in Alabama. We had the predictably inspiring sight of President Obama at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, a black commander-in-chief standing on a bridge named for a Confederate general, in one way closing the circle of a troubled history. We also had the pre-event, front-page story in the L.A. Times that quoted a former Selma city councilman, a white man, who dismissed the commemorative march as "nothing but a nigger street party." At just about the same moment a video surfaced at the University of Oklahoma in which some students, members of the Southern-rooted SAE fraternity, singing gleefully about keeping black people, i.e. niggers, out of the organization. Overall it feels like the ugly side of the paradox is winning these days.

That ugliness can also be subtle. Last week I was chatting over my driveway fence with a relative of my former neighbor, Hortense. Hortense is nearly 99 years old; she moved to this tract in Inglewood from the Midwest in 1953, when it was brand new, and only moved out last year. She was one of the few white folks who sat out the white flight of the 60s and 70s, insisting this was her home. When she left, a distinct part of Inglewood history left with her.

Her family has been fixing the house up ever since, and over the months I became friendly with her daughter-in-law. We talked about Hortense, about plants and gardening, dogs, various aspects of home restoration (I was mightily impressed that Cathy and other family members did all the work themselves--no contractors). And on occasion we talked about Inglewood, though I was always keenly aware that we had lived different versions of it. Neither of us talked about the differences, and I found myself automatically searching for the experiences in common so that we didn't have to end up at the conversational impasse of white flight itself. But it always loomed.

In this last conversation we discovered that we'd attended the same high school, Gardena, though Cathy had graduated in the '50s and I graduated in the '70s. Wonderful coincidence! We exclaimed over it and immediately starting quizzing each other on the more memorable aspects of the school--its agricultural roots, its improbable art collection, the quirky, small-town quality of Gardena itself. She remembered the original campus at the site of what became Peary Jr. High (now Peary Middle School), which I also attended. Feeling more than a little nostalgic, I said that Gardena had been an idyllic time for me because it had been so ethnically diverse, with whites, blacks, Latinos and Asian students present in roughly equal numbers. It was an organic mix that turned out to be a moment in time that didn't last because in the 80s the economy shifted, the crack epidemic started, certain groups left town, public schools got defunded by Prop 13 and...suddenly I was talking about race, and talking about it alone. Carol listened with a kind of polite interest. If there is such a thing.

She admitted that she'd never seen what you could call diversity at Gardena. She said that thought that everybody blamed Prop 13 too much. She thought the biggest problem these days was the fact that kids were just so different than kids in previous generations, more entitled. She thought that they faced so much more danger too, and that was a big part of what made them so different. It was just the way things were, she concluded. Can't do much about it. Things changed.

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Things changed. So much, too much, collapsed into two words. It was clear that we were done sharing, on this particular topic anyway. Or she was done sharing. There was no animosity--we went back to talking about the weather, which was still unusually warm, or maybe that was usual now. But I knew: by me bringing up color--really, just talking about my life in public school-- the boundaries of a certain casual intimacy had been tested, and determined. We could have no real intimacy. I had called forth the elephant in the room, or the elephant in the driveway, in a house in a neighborhood in a city that had changed profoundly because of the dynamics of race. By describing that change I realized she thought I was indicting her, calling her motives into question, maybe even casting aspersions on the house she and her family had returned to and worked so diligently to make nice, fresh, as it had been in the beginning. The neighbors on the block appreciated the transformation, noted the diligence. We admired it; it had been good for us.

Still, I had crossed a line. Until I can do that--and not just once, but regularly--crossing the bridge will have to wait.

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