My Grandpa Tom grew up in Atlantic City. His dad was a hotel manager. This was before there were casinos and the trappings that come from gambling. Atlantic City used to be a vacation retreat for folks along the eastern seaboard. And my great-grandfather worked a hotel to provide amenities for these guests.
Grandpa used to say it was a good place to grow up. Especially if you were Irish. He would tell stories of having to run through some neighborhoods because that’s where the Italians or Germans or Jews or even worse, the Polacks lived. As a kid, I thought it was peculiar one white group would be prejudiced against another. Simpler times. Nothings better than good old white-on-white racism.
Mick. Potato head. Paddy. White Trash. Fish eater. Shant.
As slurs go, potato head isn’t bad. And my family ate a ton of potatoes growing up. If I had kids, the poor bastards would probably be called taco head because, well, you know. Grandpa Tom would say all of the separation between him and guys with names like Bertolli, Schneider or Kowalski ended when he joined the Navy and fought the Third Reich. I figure being stuck on a destroyer in the middle of the Atlantic for four years would dilute most residual hatred of fellow Americans.
I grew up in Las Vegas and never thought much about racism. The limited number of friends I had were mostly white kids like me, but I had a handful of black and Mexican buddies. My parents were products of the 1960s and slurs were not tolerated. Equal rights, equal treatment. I don’t think I ever said the N-word until I bought Ice-T’s O.G. Original Gangster(1991). I really liked the song “Hustler” and learned every word. Stop making great rap songs if you don’t want me to say that offensive word.
It wasn’t until the Rodney King riots did I experience racism. The night North Las Vegas burnt was actually my senior prom. I didn’t have a date and ended up working my dishwasher shift at Angel Park Golf Course. I sat on the roof of the pro shop with the black janitor. He shared his pot and I handed out the mini-bottles I stole from the liquor room. We both got tight and talked about race in America. I don’t remember much with the exception that he said he couldn’t go home to his apartment because he lived in the middle where the smoke and flames were filling the early summer night. He talked about why it was tough being black in Vegas and the things he experienced his entire life. He wasn’t much older than me but I knew he was living a harder life. I didn’t drive back to my parent’s home until early in the morning. You could smell the building fires for days.
I don’t remember what happened to him. Even more pathetic, I don’t remember his name.
Months later, I saw my first act of racism. I was a freshman at the University of Nevada and my roommate was a kid from Chicago. At least, that’s what I saw. His name was Ryan and I thought he must have really screwed up big to end up at Reno for college. The other guys on the dorm room floor didn’t see Ryan from Chicago, they saw a Japanese-American and quickly nicknamed his “Nip.” I had to ask what it stood for. I didn’t like it when I found out.
If I grew up isolated in the suburbs of Las Vegas, my classmates from Northern Nevada might have grown up in a bubble. And it reflected in their language and behavior around people who were a shade darker than Alan Jackson. I wish I could say I organized Lincoln Hall and hosted an equality forum or became the fightin’ preacher for social justice. I never used the language, but I mostly got quiet and let the slurs go. I wouldn’t admit it then, but I know now that I was afraid of the guys from Ely, Elko and the other small towns along the I-80 corridor.
They were bigger than me and much more committed to their thoughts about race. I knew you shouldn’t be debasing people with slurs and hateful language, but I wasn’t leading a charge against it. I never saw them corner a black guy and verbally or physically assault him. But the non-stop talk about race was grueling. Even worse, by the end of the first school year, Ryan from Chicago, nicknamed Nip, was in on the fun.
As I got older, I got bigger, and not just physically. I met more folks that didn’t look like me. Even more important, I had bosses that didn’t look like me. A friend came out of the closet ending the myth that being gay was a bad thing. Hell, later in life, friends of the same sex got married. I befriended folks who were different. Not just in appearances but in thinking, background, religious beliefs and about every other way possible. In time, hateful language wasn’t just ugly to hear but directly impacted somebody I knew.
You’re more likely to roll up your sleeves and say/do something when you hear hateful language about a friend of yours. And I try to be a good friend.
Two bar stories.
Back in the day, I worked the Sunday karaoke shift at Tavernacle. It was loosely called Gay-Oake Night because the 65+ guests were gay men. I loved it. Not only was there $1 Bud Light drafts but the place was packed. I made a lot of money those Sundays. I enforced two house rules: no rounding second base in the bar and don’t use the F-word, the six letter one, not the four letter one. A patron broke the second rule and I told him to not use that language in here. He asked why not, he was gay and it was his word. It might be and you might not be offended by it, but what about the rest of the room?
The second moment is when some snot-nosed 21-year-old said that whiskey tasted like a N-word’s ass. Quickly, not because I love whiskey, I asked him to say what he just said again. He quickly amended his statement to whiskey tasting like ass. “No, you didn’t,” I corrected him. “You said whiskey tasted like a nigger’s ass. Be a man and own up to it. And if you think you can talk like that in here, you’re fucking wrong.” He left.
I tell these stories not to portray myself as a hero, but rather to illustrate that I’m going to spend the rest of my life paying the fee for not saying something when I was in college. And the interest is compounded. It’s easy to get steamrolled by racist, homophobic or hostile language. The speaker feels empowered. And it’s hard to punch back when people are already throwing haymakers. But you should punch back. You might get hurt but it gets easier and you’ll be shocked by the amount of people who support you.
For the last two weeks, it’s been non-stop talk if the President is a racist. The answer is an emphatic yes. There’s no debate about it. He’s reaching his base, most of which look like the guys living on my freshman dorm room. Trump is a bully and he’s never taken a jab to the chin. He’s never felt his eyes explode in tears and lose his breath. And why is he acting like the Fourth Reich? Because four U.S. Congresswomen questioned his southern border immigration policies.
His calloused and myopic tweets is his way of diverting attention from the concentration camp levels of inhumanity in Texas. He wasn’t telling AOC, Omar, Pressley and Tlaib to go home. He was changing the story yet again but the ramifications of his steadfast belief that America is for Americans alone is garbage.
The blowback is people who never thought about “love it or leave it” are being bombarded by it. The level of civil discourse is so low that people are being swept in with Trump’s tide. And even worse, as we’re focused on four freshman Congresswomen, we’re not paying attention to flooding throughout Louisiana, Arkansas and Mississippi. Or the trade war with China. Or the potential conflict with Iran. Or the environment. Or the fact that this might be the last Amazon Prime Day where a flat-screen television doesn’t cost the consumers $1,300 or a Ford pickup doubles in price because of tariffs. Or reproductive rights are being stripped away one state at a time.
But the President is a racist. We know it. Let’s move on. Let’s move on to the next problem like kicking his ass in 2020. He feeds on Big Macs and publicity. We know the emperor isn’t wearing clothes. He’s a joke and his administration has done exactly zero for the general good of America. Ignore this bozo and make a difference with somebody you know, or even better, somebody you don’t know.
My Grandpa Tom would have known what to do with a guy like Trump. And it would have started with his belt strap and a knuckle sandwich. Short of this, acknowledge and move on. The President clearly cannot.
Ben Raskin is a writer for the Pill Mill and a bartender at Keys On Main. Follow him on Twitter @BennyRaskin. Put a quarter in the swear jar before ordering.
2 thoughts on “A Brief History of Racism”
Could be one of your best columns yet. Amen brother!
Bean This was awesome.Hey remember when Patrick thought he was Michael Jackson yes no tolerance for racism on our home