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.
Throughout the nine years since that incident, I have been called a racist by every permutation of human being and from every conceivable angle. In addition to being dubbed a “racist ape” by a Middle Eastern visitor in a Caffè Uno in Edgware Road, the most stunning of these occurred in the past four years whenever I have ventured to write about European and British football violence! In 2005 I wrote about the men and women wearing “Die, Glazer, Die!” t-shirts at Manchester United’s legendary Old Trafford stadium when the American tycoon Malcolm Glazer and his sons decided to buy the team and mortgage the organization to the hilt. There is no doubt the fans had a valid grievance and were livid that a foreigner they perceived as a shyster could be allowed to step in to inveigle the club into debt and worry. What I found intolerable was the ugly hatred spewing forth, culminating in the fans attacking the Glazers’ minibus.
My article resulted in a barrage of hate mail; even my esteemed colleague, the great photographer Sally Soames, told me to take her off my email list as she was so incensed that I, an American, could dare to write about something I “knew nothing about” and criticize the beautiful game. (I am actually sports-crazy and at the time had already lived in Britain for thirty years.)
The hate mail accused me of being racist! How a white woman who condemns the actions of thousands of white men and women is a racist is beyond me. Then in 2008 I was again called a racist by (white) Liverpool football fans when I criticized them for making death threats against George Gillett and Tom Hicks when the U.S.-Canadian twosome bought the team with a heavy deficit attached to the deal. Fan after fan wrote to me with threats against my well-being and the Liverpool Echo hosted a blog about evil me. That got me: being called a “racist” for lambasting white Liverpool fans!
In June of this year I appeared on a Press (Iranian) TV special in London about Israel and its effect on worldwide anti-Semitism. I defended Israel’s actions against Hamas. In the front of the audience an American woman screamed at me, “You make me ashamed! You are a racist!” When I came home, my inbox had been invaded by a woman from a pro-Palestinian Jewish group, saying she had also been in the audience and had found my refusal to denounce Israel lamentable. She expressed her sorrow that I chose to promulgate my “racist” views.
Now in late August we have the aforementioned Jermain Defoe, a black British footballer, being detained overnight for a traffic violation that proved unfounded, an occurrence that is rife. White footballers say they are never pulled up by the police. Footballers have also been demanding that the hideous racism vomiting forth from the stands at European and British matches be addressed with severity by the authorities. In Barcelona last year, Spanish fans turned up in blackface to viciously taunt Formula One ace Lewis Hamilton. That was the real thing.
When I heard the Gates story I had a degree of sympathy for both the police and for the professor. But in Europe racial prejudice is still a major illness with a primitive edge that blights an otherwise enlightened continent. The Gates debacle was ugly, but when you think that France has only just introduced its first black television anchor, the U.S. seems a haven of racial enlightenment. As for me? I resent being called a racist and hope the public discourse in the United States does not become as ugly as that across the pond. Does beer in the Rose Garden heal wounds? Time will tell.