I was born in 1939 in what was then known as Madison Park Hospital, across the street from where Bernie Sanders grew up. Bernie lived just down the block from James Madison High School, where we both were distance runners on the track team.
Madison, which was one of the best high schools in the city, drew kids almost entirely from the surrounding neighborhoods. Of the more than 4,500 students at Madison in the mid-1950s, less than a dozen were Black. And one of them, Jimmy Dyer, was elected student government president.
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Were we racists? Well, the guy who lost to Jimmy did say – very likely in jest – that maybe he would have won if he had been Chinese. Racism was something that might be present in other neighborhoods, but not in ours.
Two of the runners on the track team were Black. But otherwise, I almost never saw a Black face in the neighborhood. Until the mid-1950s, virtually no Black families were allowed to live South of Eastern Parkway. The handful of Black students at Madison may have lived in Sheepshead Bay, where a few families were permitted to live in one of the low-income public housing projects.
Living A Life Of White Privilege
It never dawned on me that I was living a life of white privilege until I was seventeen, and had gotten a full-time job in “the City.” Every morning at a quarter of eight, I would arrive at the Kings Highway subway station. Across the tracks, I would often see a surprisingly crowded train discharge scores of passengers.
Who was coming to our neighborhood while all of us were headed to work in Manhattan? Nearly all of them were women. And virtually all of those women were Black.
Obviously, they were maids on their way to work. Of course! Why else would so many Black women be getting off at Kings Highway? After all, they certainly didn’t live here.
It was only then that it finally began to dawn on me that there was a reason why no Black people lived in our neighborhood. Or why virtually the only Black people I had ever seen in our neighborhood were housemaids, earning a dollar-an-hour, plus carfare and lunch. Or why these women didn’t find better jobs. Well, I’m sure that you know the answers.
As it happened, I was also earning a dollar an hour, but in my case, it was to save up money for college. And I didn’t have to clean toilets and wash floors.
Discrimination Based On Color
I worked in the office of a mid-size textile company. Of the fifty or fifty-five people who worked there, Connie and Cliff were the only Blacks.
Connie and I were both file clerks, which I quickly realized was the lowest level job in the office. She had graduated from Brooklyn’s Girls High, but had no plans of going to college even though she had an academic diploma and had taken advanced algebra and solid geometry.
Cliff was in fifties, and he remembered my mother, who had worked there as a typist years before, and had gotten me my job. When I mentioned him to her, she said that he was very proud of his daughters, who were both in high school. I was happy to report that they had become teachers, gotten married, and had children. Cliff carried around several photos which he showed me.
He was the maintenance man and the porter and taught me how to operate the mimeograph and addressograph machines. My mimeographing skills came in handy when I was working in political campaigns and years later, for running off exams when I taught at Brooklyn College.
When we had a “show week,” I was told to assist Cliff in moving loads of furniture and hundreds of heavy cartons to make room for the great textile show. I didn’t mind the work at all – it was a welcome break from filing – but Cliff told me to put in for an extra fifty cents an hour, which I did.
One day, Cliff pointed at the office manager and confided, “You know why I don’t have his job?” I did, of course. But then he pointed at his face and said, “This is why!”
But as Bob Dylan put it, “The times they are a-changin’” In the late 1950s, many Blacks were finally permitted to rent apartments and even buy homes in the area between Eastern Parkway and Empire Boulevard. And by the sixties, they had breached that barrier and continued their march South towards Kings Highway.
Post-Civil Rights Revolution
Well, we all know the story of how the civil rights revolution finally brought about at least the amelioration of the most blatant forms of racial segregation. But the racist opposition to these changes was widespread not just in the South, but in the rest of the country as well.
There was an old saying about the attitude of whites toward Blacks: In the South, they didn’t worry about the Blacks getting too close – as long as they didn’t get too big. But in the North, they didn’t mind how big they got -- as long they didn’t get too close.
By the 1980s, you could see several Black faces along the Kings Highway shopping strip. Some belonged to students who went to Madison. But not very many Blacks actually lived in the neighborhood.
Bernie Sanders had grown up an 85-apartment building. A professor who had recently been hired at Brooklyn College was the first Black person to live there. But he didn’t stay long. When the landlord heard about the professor, he was able to get him evicted because he had an illegal sublet.
Had Bernie heard about this, he probably would have come back from Burlington, Vermont, where he was the mayor, and picketed the building. Incidentally, more than two decades before, when Bernie was attending the University of Chicago, he helped lead a sit-in in the college president’s office for barring Black students from living in a new residential hall.
For 400 years the deck has been stacked against America’s Black people. Until the 1960s, that was legal. Even today, from the criminal justice system, to educational opportunities, housing, and jobs, the deck continues to be stacked.
Issues With The Police
In my entire life, I was stopped by the police just one time. What black man can make that statement? Even today, young black men – some of them clearly on the way to work – are routinely stopped by the police and questioned. And then, just for good measure, they’re stopped again on their way home.
I’d like to ask all the angry white men how many times they were stopped and frisked. Or asked to step out of their cars with their arms raised. How many people were stopped for “driving while white?”
I wonder how many angry white people know that a white high school dropout with a criminal record is more likely to be hired for a job than a Black college graduate with a clean record? Yeah, Blacks sure do get all the breaks!
How many white men died gasping, “I can’t breathe!” with a policeman kneeling on their necks as they lay handcuffed and prone on the sidewalk?
Back in the 1950s, most of us were not at all aware of the white privilege that we enjoyed. But even today, more than half of all white Americans believe that they are the victims of racial discrimination. In Dylan’s civil right hymn, “Blowin’ in the Wind,” he asks,
“Yes, and how many times can a man turn his head
And pretend that he just doesn’t see?”