Posts Tagged ‘Race relations’


When a black man named Freddie Gray died while in custody of the Baltimore police last month, anguish led to protest. Protest led both to legitimate grievance and illegitimate violence. Black fingers pointed at racism. White fingers pointed at irresponsible black communities. Both were wrong. Both were right.

I wish I had a simple formula for overcoming the problems that beset inner-city African-American neighborhoods. But I end up with that evergreen question: Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Let’s start with poverty. African-Americans aren’t the only ethnic group in the United States to face that challenge. Yet only African-Americans were legally enslaved in this country—and for centuries. Freedom brought Jim Crow in the southern states and de facto segregation in the rest of the country, including here in San Francisco. Yes, changes have been made. But if you’re black, you still face discrimination on many fronts no matter how successful you’ve become.

Back to the core challenge: I’ve been in East Baltimore with its neglected streets and boarded-up buildings. And I can’t help asking myself: How would I fare growing up there? Could I break out of the cycle? Many black Americans have. But it’s an uphill battle. And many young people have to climb a virtual cliff. It’s harder than middle-class people imagine because a lack of prospects can warp the way you see the world. As Paul Krugman commented in The New York Times (5-4-15), “…middle-class values only flourish in an economy that offers middle-class jobs.”

The first half of the twentieth century produced a huge middle class thanks to industrialization and union wages. When I was a kid, America still offered plentiful jobs to high school graduates in mines, mills, factories and ports, as well as in offices and retail stores. Non-grads with strong backs could find lesser paying jobs. In the ‘seventies, Japan’s lower labor costs and use of automation undercut America’s industrial base. We coined a new term for the Midwest, where manufacturing took a precipitous plunge—the Rust Belt. Ultimately, American industry climbed back. But sophisticated automation results in far fewer jobs for those lacking basic to advanced technology skills.

Still, there’s more to it, I believe. A social pathology long ago infiltrated many once-thriving black neighborhoods. In part, it was aided and abetted by black leaders for whom victimization trumped self-reliance and self-control. The ‘sixties saw the federal government invest huge amounts of money in inner cities. Corrupt leaders ripped off much of it. Frustration spawned riots. It also produced negative attitudes towards education and social order. Those who valued them were denounced for “acting white.” Accomplished African Americans fled the old neighborhoods just as successful members of other ethnic communities have done. Single-mother families with fathers shuttling back and forth to prison became the new normal. Drugs and gangs claimed lives. Despair increased.

Sadly, understanding causation doesn’t provide a solution. So I ask again: Which comes first? Do we need more and better government assistance to create jobs for the chronically unemployed along with better schools and enhanced childcare? Or do black communities need to leave behind old baggage, including dependence on the government, and buckle down in defiance of the odds? The best answer I can offer is, it’s the chicken and the egg.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at

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Ten days ago, Carolyn and I were in the Baltimore suburbs where our son Yosi underwent elective surgery. (He’s home in Tennessee and recovering quickly.) We needed a prescription filled. A series of events led us to witness a truth too many Americans ignore.

First, we went to Rite Aid, a block from the doctor’s office. They didn’t have the medication but directed us to a Rite Aid in Liberty Heights in the inner city. I was fascinated, because Liberty Heights once was Baltimore’s primary Jewish neighborhood. A friend grew up there. The director Barry Levinson made three movies about Baltimore—Diner (1982), Tin Men (1987) and appropriately Liberty Heights (1999).

Today, Liberty Heights is black. That had nothing to do with getting the prescription filled. So we drove there. But the Rite Aid didn’t have the prescribed dosage. We went across the street to Walgreens. Because the suburban Rite Aid gave Yosi a photocopy of the prescription form, Walgreens couldn’t fill it. And the doctor’s office closed early.

What to do? A pharmacist, black like all the staff, took over. The store had the medication, so she called the original Rite Aid, got the prescription over the phone and filled it. All was well—except that I couldn’t find my iPhone 6. I checked both pharmacies as well as our car. Carolyn called the number. Nothing. What were the odds I’d see my phone again?

Pretty good, it turned out. Carolyn texted my phone then called. Again nothing. I called AT&T but forgot my password, so the phone stayed active. We started back to our hotel. Then a man called. He’d picked up the phone outside Walgreens on Liberty Heights Avenue but taken the bus back to East Baltimore. Communications were garbled. But he agreed that we could meet at 28th Street and the Alameda. We didn’t know what we might be getting ourselves into but we agreed. It took us twenty minutes. Some of the area we passed through was burned out. Much of Baltimore has seen better days.

As we pulled up to the intersection in a quiet residential area, the man waved. We could see the phone in his hand. I rolled down the window. He approached and smiled. The iPhone confused him, he said, but he asked a kid to show him how it worked. And he waited for us.

His name is William. He’s 64. And yes, he’s black. He’s also a Navy veteran of Vietnam. We chatted for several minutes. William suffers from PTSD and sees a psychiatrist. Yet he’s outgoing and delightful. Also honest. “I’m good people,” he said. William is great people. I gave him $100. I knew he could use it. The “price” was cheap—not because I got my phone back but because meeting William made my day. Hell, my month.

There are many good people everywhere. I met a terrific woman working at the Amtrak station (we took the train to New York), a talented actor-writer, Leland Gantt, about to tour with a one-man show, “Rhapsody in Black,” and others. All African Americans. All real Americans.

Perhaps Congressional Republicans will view the President that way as they get down to business. For William’s sake and the sake of so many others, I hope they will.

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Last Saturday, a ruckus took place on Fillmore Street. Emerging from a café with friends, I heard screaming on the east side of Fillmore near California. Crossing the street, I saw two or three police officers attempting to restrain a young man. He was black.

The man was on the ground screaming and cursing. He directed his invectives, mostly to the tune of “fuck you,” not only at the police but also at bystanders, several taking videos, perhaps as a restraint against police overreaction. After several minutes, the police—as many as eight had gathered—cuffed the man. Then they placed him in a patrol car. No weapon was brandished, no baton wielded, no chokehold applied.

As I heard it, the man had entered the nearby Wells Fargo Bank screaming. Such behavior tends to frighten employees and customers. Was he mentally disturbed? Off his meds? Did he have a knife or gun? I don’t know. I’m sure no one in the bank did either when he entered and went off. The security guard called the police. The man left and was identified to police answering the call. I only know how he reacted. And how I’ve reacted in the past.

Police have stopped me twice. The first time, a New York State highway patrolman pulled over several fraternity brothers and me as we drove back to college after spring vacation. We weren’t speeding. He checked the trunk. For alcohol? Drugs? I have no idea. The search may well have been illegal. Motivated by what? Beats me. He was less than pleasant and not at all apologetic when he let us continue on our way. If any of us were black, might there have been a violent confrontation? I can’t say. State trooper stops four Jewish guys? You never know. But none of us was about to provide him an opportunity to escalate the stop into an arrest or worse.

The second time, I was living in San Antonio. I went out for a late-night walk. A policeman stopped his patrol car and asked for my identification. Yes, people have a right to walk in their own neighborhood. Or someone else’s for that matter. But I wasn’t concerned with protesting a violation of my rights. You have to realize that Texans generally refuse to walk as much as a block to get beer at the corner 7-Eleven. That’s why God gave mankind the pickup truck. The policeman saw something unusual. He investigated. He was polite the whole time. Of course, I’m not black. That could have been another story. Or not. After verifying that I was a local resident, he said thank you and left. Now consider this: I’m glad he stopped me. He was keeping my neighborhood safe.

So yes, we know some police have used weapons or deadly force too quickly. That’s wrong. And no, my appearance doesn’t attract a lot of attention. But police have a job to do, including apprehending those who disturb the peace and keeping an eye on neighborhoods. It’s critical that they do it the right way. It’s also critical that we recognize the difficult and often dangerous nature of police work.

Not every ruckus should turn into a disaster. Then again, not every ruckus should happen in the first place.

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