This morning my husband was watching a piece on ESPN on Fernando Valenzuela. I was not particularly interested in the fact that he (Fernando, not Wayne) was the first Latino superstar professional baseball pitcher. I was much more interested in the cultural nuances of his story. For example, I had no idea that when the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers was looking to relocate them to Los Angeles that he targeted an area known as Chavez Ravine, occupied primarily–surprise!–by poor Latinos. Of course, the general practice of “urban renewal” ( shorthand for tearing down the homes of people of color and erecting buildings and businesses primarily catering to a white crowd) required that they tell the people of this barrio that they were going to tear down their houses for the stadium–true, but that they were also going to build them better, affordable housing–false.The houses were torn down okay, but no housing was erected for the displaced population. A sad story that has been repeated, and is being repeated even as you read, all over the country.
As long as the population is of color and/or poor, they have few rights and fewer champions. The novelist Henry Miller said it best, “When shit becomes valuable, the poor will be born without assholes. ”
When I was a Library of Congress Fellow in 2002 we had n urban specialist come to talk to us about what he called racist diasporas. His example was the Metropolitan Opera complex in NYC. According to him the Met was built on land that was previously occupied by a majority of black people. There was no intention of putting up an opera house complex there. It was supposed to be an attempt to improve the housing for the black tenets, which was substandard. After the buildings housing the blacks were torn down, however, very similar to the events of Chavez Ravine, it was decided the area was too nice and had too many other possibilities. So the displaced were on their own and the Met was built.
To make certain the same kinds of folks who used to live there did not wax nostalgic and come back, they constructed highways so that virtually the only way into the complex is via automobile, not on foot, unless you want to brave crossing several lanes of highway traffic.
Both of these stories, neither one of which I was familiar with before 2002 ( the Met) and this morning (Chavez Ravine) spotlight one of my primary contention. You do not know what people have gone through unless you are intimately familiar with their histories. Therefore you do not know about their grudges and their resentments and their remembered injustices. And herein lies the problem of race and other kinds of relations across difference. Most of the time the oppressed population , and I am not suggesting that oppression is only the purview of people of color, by the way, knows about the oppression. They tell their stories to their children, who tell them to their children.
I have taught many a class on race where someone white in the audience piped up with tales of oppression experienced by their Italian/Irish/German/Easter European/Polish relatives. The fact that those populations were eventually declared white and ergo had their oppression reduced does not diminish the memory, or the resentment or the pain. But, what of use are such stories of past wrongs, besides, of course, indulging in the Oppression Olympics– my oppression is worse than yours!
The Buddhists have a saying, ” To understand everything is to forgive everything.” If I understood the history of my fellow Americans I could forgive their insensitivity, their hostility, their ignorance of my history. Conversely, if they knew the stories I had in my memory bank they would understand me much, much better.
The idea of that that was then, this is now, forget about it, is not valid. The Latinos in LA have a right for all of us to understand why the Latinos boycotted games at Chavez Ravine until the rising Latino star made them drop the boycott in order to see and support him. The black folks who had their homes torn down so rich, mainly white, people can enjoy opera in a spectacular facility have the right for us to know that and acknowledge the injustice of it. That does not mean we can correct all the wrongs done to various people, but it does mean we can acknowledge that what was done was wrong and should not have been done!
I recently pulled book chapter from a publication because the editor, who is white and male, objected to one of my examples of bigotry, e.g. having only pictures of white males hanging in a school of government lobby. His remark in the margins of my manuscript was, ” perhaps there are legitimate reasons that there are only pictures of white men hanging in the foyer of that building.” I decided if he was that clueless, that he did not understand that any iconography in any edifice at a PUBLIC university should have pictures that represent the PUBLIC, then I did not want to be associated with him.He was shocked and begged and told me that my withdrawal might endanger the success of the project. I wished him luck in his future endeavors.
He did not understand my history.
We need to stop having sensitivity training and teach history instead. If you understand history you will find it easier to forgive those who do not. Some pundit has said that every person you meet is carrying some kind of burden. I would modify that to “Every person you meet is carrying some history you have no idea about.”
Ask them about it, listen, learn. It is the right thing to do and you can have a heck of a good time doing it. Solve the mystery of your fellow human beings, almost all of them are well worth your effort.