Notes for “EAWLC Dialogue with Ed Shiller”

By Ed Shiller at EAWLC, April 27, 2024

I’ll begin by sharing with you a few observations and experiences.

I believe that prejudice and racism are acquired traits, perhaps emerging as a consequence of the human instinct to form tight-knit communities of like-minded people.

I grew up prejudice free, not because I was blessed with exceptional virtue, but rather because I lived in homogenous neighbourhoods with other upwardly mobile Jewish families – isolated from the racism that raged around me, but just beyond my limited horizon.

I don’t recall how I became aware of the N word and its hurtful effects. At the time, I was in third grade at a progressive private school in the New York City borough of Queens. I had a Black classmate named Tookie. Motivated both by a desire to share my discovery and to forestall harm to Tookie, I told another classmate that I had recently learned of a word that we should never call Tookie or utter around him, because it would cause him great pain.

During the next few years, I became more aware of racial, ethnic and religious discrimination, mostly from hearing my parents talk about current affairs.

I was not touched directly by these events and had not come face to face with racists or racism until my first year at a small, experimental, co-ed boarding prep school in Woodstock Vermont. One of the students, a guy named Addison Wood, was an unabashed and virulent anti-Black racist from Louisiana. A few of my schoolmates and I tried to reason with him. He steadfastly stood his racist ground, but I wish to believe that over time, he thought about that conversation and how baseless and harmful his racist attitudes were, and then, somehow, relented.

I was an idealist – I believed in the United States’ self-characterization as The Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave, and, thus, regarded people like Addison Wood as aberrations – outliers from the norm – anomalies – not true representations of the American character.

It was only when I went to Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore – then a Jim Crow city – did I realize how mistaken I was.

It was in 1960 and the civil rights movement was in its early stages. In Baltimore action focused on integrating the city’s segregated restaurants, and I became an active participant in weekly sit-ins.

To get our discussion going, I’d like to mention three of the lessons I learned from my civil rights work and other experiences during my university years in Baltimore and beyond.

The first is that, paradoxically, one’s race, ethnicity or religion are not the only determinants of one’s values regarding social justice. Being Black does guarantee that you will not become an anti-Black racist; being Jewish does not mean you will not become anti-Semitic – though in the context of current events, I would like to emphasize that standing up for the rights of the Palestinian people and wanting to end the slaughter in Gaza does automatically make a Jew or anyone else an anti-Semite.

I first became aware of this paradox when working on a voter registration campaign in the summer of 1962. The minister at one of the major Black churches in the city allowed us to use the church to hold classes on how to register to vote and to operate the old-fashioned voting machines then in use. His support was only lukewarm. “Those people,” he said referring to his parishioners. “aren’t interested in voting.”

He then beckoned me and the others in my group to a window. “See that,” the Black minister said, pointing to the shabby buildings in one of Baltimore’s worst Black slums. “The people living there are the ones who turned the neighbourhood into a slum. That’s the way they want to live.”

My sad realization that the oppressed can also become oppressors was re-enforced shortly thereafter. I was apartment hunting, accompanied by a few of my friends, one of whom was Black, and found just the right place at a rent my meagre budget could accommodate. I was thrilled.

But when I went to the superintendent the next day to sign the lease, he admonished me not to bring any more of my Black friends to the apartment. The superintendent was not raised in the United States, he did not learn his anti-Black racism as a child; he was instead a victim of the Holocaust. I could plainly see the numbers that the Nazi guards at Auschwitz had tattooed on his left forearm. I did not sign the lease.

The second lesson I learned was that any of us – or at least I – could fall under the evil spell of racism. Three of my white friends from the civil rights movement and I were standing outside my apartment in an all-white neighbourhood (all housing in Baltimore at that time was segregated).

It was just before midnight when we saw a Black teenage boy walking along the opposite sidewalk. All four of us, in unison and seemingly motivated by a baseless primal fear and anger at seeing a Black person trespassing on our residential street, ran up to him, and menacingly backed him into a doorway. We were poised to attack this innocent young man, who cowered in justifiable fear. Suddenly the hypocrisy and horror of what we were doing struck us. We stood for a moment in shameful stillness, apologized to the boy and sheepishly walked away.

The third lesson is that you cannot end racism by violence or fiat. Laws that criminalize racist behaviour are, indeed, necessary to protect the rights of vulnerable minorities. But laws themselves don’t change feelings, attitudes or beliefs. They don’t end racism, then just drive it  underground.

Racism will only be held in check when deeply held prejudices and fantasies of racial superiority are eradicated – and the best hope of achieving this is through education, reasoning and non-threatening interaction with people of other races, ethnicities and religions. It is by following the example of East and West Learning Connections.

There is a passage in Sheila White’s The Letters: Postmark Prejudice in Black and White, a biographical novel about the interracial marriage of her white mother and Black father that illustrates my point. I’d like to read it to you.

The scene takes place during the early days of the courtship of Vivian, Sheila’s white mother, and Billy, her Black father. The couple pass by three sailors on a street in Halifax. One of the sailors hurls a racial epithet at Billy. Here’s how Billy responds:

“Vivian, you wait here for just a moment,” he said calmly, and he cir­cled back to the aggravating trio. The surly, marmalade-headed sailor was weaving back and forth, opening and closing his hands, shifting from one foot to the other, looking itchy and edgy as he saw Billy coming his way. Vivian stood her ground for about five seconds before deciding to quick step behind Billy to catch up and witness what was going to happen. She feared an altercation as she watched him stride up to the sailors.

“Excuse me, gentlemen,” he said. “I couldn’t help but overhear your comment.” He reached for some mimeographed pamphlets from his inside suit jacket pocket and handed one to each of them, which they studied. He introduced himself. “I run the programs for servicemen at the YMCA here in Halifax.”

With that, he launched into an eloquent sales pitch for the upcoming servicemen’s dance at the Y and completely took them aback when he invited them to attend. He reminded them there was no cost. It was a popular event with the local girls. Refreshments would be served. He told them his fath­er had been an honorary captain in the Great War. He retold a few of his favorite stories about servicemen he had met through the Y and soon had the sailors relaxed and laughing. Looking straight at Billy the instigator of the initial unpleasantness unexpectedly apologized for the slur. They shook hands.

That’s it for my prepared remarks. It’s now time for us to start talking – about justice; about the state of the world; about your thoughts; about mine; about the fascinating people I met as a journalist in New York, Baltimore, Copenhagen and Toronto; about everything and anything. Let the dialogue begin.

Editor’s message:

You are welcome to watch the recording of the full dialogue here, of which the notes summarized  the first part.

And view the introduction of Ed Shiller and the event here:

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