Martin Luther King famously remarked that “11 o’clock on Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours” in America. When I was in high school in the “integrated” Denver Public Schools, I could have made the case that AP American History was just as segregated. For a school that had bussed its way to a 50/50 balance between white and minority (largely black and hispanic) students, its classrooms were pathetically monochrome. Ever since those days when I lived the reality of a city wrestling with integration, I’ve been fascinated by race. That’s not because my experiences were particularly good. Most kids at Manual, whether black, white, or hispanic, probably had their share of uncomfortable moments—such was the social petri dish where we spent our days. Race fascinated me then because it had a tangible impact on my daily life. When I was older, it fascinated me for its intractability: Race in America struck me as a cultural Gordian knot—but it didn’t seem right that it should be so.
Four decades after graduating from Manual, I was working out with an African-American friend of mine. Between sets, we entertained each other with stories of our wayward youths, he growing up in Cincinnati, me in Denver. One time I confessed that, because I’d been so scared to use the bathrooms at my junior high, I wet my pants on the way home when I couldn’t stop at a friend’s house to relieve myself. Laughing uproariously, my friend asked what had me so scared. I told him I’d heard too many stories about white kids getting beaten up in there and, consequently, took my chances with a full bladder.
At that point, my friend broke into a big smile and confessed that, at his school, he’d been one of the kids doing the ass-whooping on white boys. Incredulous, I asked him why.
“That’s just what we did, J,” he chuckled.
We had a good laugh over the irony of all this. I told him I felt vindicated in wetting my pants out on Kearney Street that day. What really struck me, though, was that, if we’d gone to the same school, someone who became one of my closest friends might have kicked my ass in the lavatory—because I was white. And I would have feared him in the hallways because he was black. There, in a single tableau, is the Gordian knot that so preoccupies me. Race in America is a vexing issue largely for its ability to influence opinions, behaviors, narratives, and institutions in ways we never anticipate—almost invisibly. That’s how, among other things, people can unintentionally show racial bias without being “racist” in any obvious sense.
Here on All of That, I’ll be blogging about race every now and then, largely to sort it out for myself. It’s a sensitive and complex issue and not one I come to expecting some epiphany or bold resolution, like Alexander the Great cleaving the legendary knot. This conundrum, I think, takes a ton of patience even to comprehend fully, much less to resolve.