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Growing up between black and white in Baltimore

After my family immigrated to Maryland, I internalized the racism that could be turned against me

May 3, 2015 2:00AM ET

In February 1968 the Kerner Report, commissioned by President Lyndon Johnson to examine the causes of urban riots, warned that “our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.” The report was duly ignored, even as its predictions were borne out just a few months later, when riots broke out in hundreds of cities after the murder of Martin Luther King Jr.

My family emigrated from India to Baltimore in 1969, the year after a week of deadly and destructive riots swept through the city’s poverty belt. Over the next 20 years we lived in Baltimore County, which envelops the city. In the 1970s, we were the only nonwhite family for blocks, except for two other Asian households. Because my father was an engineer and my siblings and I excelled in school, we were able to benefit from the model minority stereotype. While early on we had to confront open racism, we were accepted into white culture over time. This contradictory experience meant I internalized the racism that I could be subjected to.

The worst racism was reserved for those who lived in the black sections of the city, then being hollowed out by what the Rev. Donte Hickman, a pastor in Baltimore, described as “deterioration, dilapidation and disinvestment” in an article in The New York Times. My family and I usually faced milder discrimination stemming from ignorance, such as when a friend asked, “Do you really eat monkey brains?” while we watched “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

But explicit racism was not unknown. In one neighborhood, minor frictions with our neighbors escalated into a white mob outside our home screaming at and cursing us. The family next door egged our car and abused our dog. Eventually my mom had to escort us to and from school because white kids would attack us. Occasionally another kid called me “n-----,” though I found that yelling, “You’re stupid — I’m from India” usually resolved the situation. But one “friend” repeated the epithet so often that I couldn’t chalk it up to ignorance, leaving me feeling debased and humiliated.

Once at the eighth-grade lunch table David (names have been changed) passed around KKK literature. I was repelled and fascinated by the graphic racism. When he declared he was going to join the Klan when he turned 18, all the other boys seemed proud, and I was struck with a fear I didn’t understand. Still, I remember joining in with my playmates when we put pillowcases over our heads and threw a cross on the fire to burn, while their fathers watched and chuckled.

Some of the most explicit racism I witnessed was in the Boy Scouts, where being part of a community meant people felt comfortable enough to speak openly. I remember someone’s father driving us through black neighborhoods, explaining how “n-----s were animals who only care for cars and clothes.” Another time, a dozen boys, including a black kid, came to join our troop. I heard someone comment, “A black kid will never survive in this troop.” He soon dropped out.

If racism is internalized by those who are tormented by it, just imagine how deep-seated it is among those who benefit from it.

In the last week I’ve been in contact with more than a dozen friends who grew up in Baltimore — most white but also black, Latino and Native — to hear what they remember. Only one white friend I talked to remembered visiting the home of a black family growing up, and that was once. None of them ever had a black family at their houses. Some did not encounter a black person until high school.

But I wasn’t the only brown kid to trip over the color line. Sam, who is part indigenous, recalls, “When I was 9, I remember calling a black kid the N-word and how upset he got. That was a defining moment. I realized how powerful the word was.” Sam also said, “In high school my brother had a black friend who would come over. He would tell racist jokes, and everyone liked him, saying, ‘See, he’s OK with it.’” Sam concluded, “I had to actively unlearn racism, and I can still feel it inside me.” If racism is so internalized by those who are tormented by it, just imagine then how deep-seated it is among those who benefit from it.

My friends are more tolerant than their parents’ generation was, but few support the protests in Baltimore. One described the violence as an understandable reaction to militarized policing. Another passed on offering an opinion as “the vast majority of whites, myself included, will have no idea what it is like being black in Baltimore.” But most choose to condemn the riots or even throw in with state violence: “I choose to side with law and our police and fire dept.,” one wrote.

We are wealthier, more powerful and more tolerant than ever. But individual tolerance cannot overcome the structural racism in Baltimore that results in police brutality with impunity, the 46,000 vacant or abandoned homes in the city, the life expectancy on par with Haiti, the decades of redlining, blockbusting and predatory lending that looted the city long before a CVS was ransacked. In terms of residential segregation in the Baltimore area, little has changed, and the same is true nationwide.

We as a nation tolerate an African-American unemployment rate more than twice that for whites, a black childhood poverty rate three times that for whites, black median household income less than 60 percent of whites’, a black death rate 20 percent greater than whites’ and 1.5 million missing black men — which we would call genocide in any other country.

Since the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, last summer, the rest of the country is slowly realizing that the economic and social plight in black America is directly linked to systematic violence by police forces. That’s what set off Baltimore.

With rare exceptions, however, the media portray this as an issue of tensions between the police and black communities. That is not the whole story. We also need to examine how white people — even those who think of themselves as tolerant or have learned how to conceal their racism with code words — are complicit in allowing police violence to continue unchecked.

The solutions the Kerner Report suggested the last time Baltimore burned apply now as well:

A commitment to national action — compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding and, above all, new will.

But we also need to finally admit the truth of something else the report said: “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain and white society condones it.” The racism we learned in our youth will not disappear until we come to terms with it honestly. Until we demolish the white culture of complicity and silence, we are condemned to more repression and more riots, no matter how tolerant we are as individuals. 

Arun Gupta is a regular contributor to The Progressive, In These Times and The Guardian. He is writing a book on the social construction of taste. Follow him on Twitter: @arunindy.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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