In the wake of the Henry Gates affair and the late-August story about black British footballer Jermain Defoe being wrongfully arrested and kept overnight in a police lockup, I was inspired to look at the issue of “racism.”
I was first called a racist in 2000. It was an unforgettable experience that blew me away. There I was, the daughter of left-wing American Jews who had followed their combined consciences tirelessly campaigning for every liberal movement, just as the anti-apartheid movement was led by South African Jews. In the 1930s anti-Semitism was on the rise in the United States; some feel this arose from Jewish devotion to socialist causes.
In the 1930s my mother was a social worker with the Philadelphia DPA (Department of Public Assistance) and many years later recounted to my sister and me horror stories about the local butchers giving maggoty meat to her black caseload (“They’re animals; they don’t know any better,” said the butchers) and Philadelphians protesting during the war when black men were first allowed to drive buses. Mommy said that one day “nine million concentrated hates behind the barricades will burst through” and there would be, in James Baldwin’s words, “the fire next time.” She was right. During the war she came close to dishonorable discharge from the Army for loudly complaining to her commanding officer about white GIs chanting “WAC-coons!” when the black WACs marched.
Throughout my lifetime my parents were liberals and lived their lives accordingly. My father’s close friend and colleague was Naresh Maniar, an Indian civil engineer, at a time when white folks socialized with white folks and that was that. Naresh and his wife came to our house for many a dinner. My mother had many health issues and needed home-helps; African-Americans Margaret Melton, Josephine Rowe, Alethea Colbourne, Minnie Epstine, and Annie-Nell Nelson were made to feel part of the family and were a profound influence on me. I name them because they are inscribed in my book of life. Dad had marched in the 1930s in defense of an African-American engineer who had been refused entry to a trade union. When all is said and done, I treasure the legacy that my parents were passionate on civil rights and that in my mother’s final years she was an AIDS buddy.
So when I was called a “racist” by a British friend in 2000, I was enraged. I had written a private email to the Guardian’s reader ombudsman, Ian Mayes, thinking it would be read by him and not published. It transpired that a Christmas “temp” was on duty and published my complaint about the plethora of pro-Palestinian editorials which I felt would lead to “Arab anger and perhaps violence.” I said that as a member of the London Society of Jews and Christians, I worried about social cohesion. My friend rang me in a fury and said my “racist” letter had caused her to be inundated with telephone calls and emails from enraged Muslim colleagues threatening me with public denunciation and other scary phenomena. It was the very first time in my forty-six years that I had been called a racist. It stung and felt damned wrong. My parents had not raised me to respect civil rights to be called a racist in middle age.