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June 16, 2005

The neighbor

A couple weeks ago there was a shooting in the little park in downtown Pinole where I walk Zeke every day. It was on a Saturday afternoon and the park was full of little kids. No one was hurt; no one was arrested, though the cops say they're on the case.

A week ago there was another shooting in the neighborhood, and this time someone was hurt. It was in a block of apartments about a mile from our house.

I was taking out the garbage last night and "B." drove up. A friendly neighbor, whose politics are as far as you can get from mine. I've been to his house, met his kids. We're cordial. He sat in his truck, driver's side window rolled down, engine running. He'd been drinking.

He was angry about the shootings. Fair enough, so am I, though they're utterly small potatoes compared to those in the neighborhoods I lived in for the twenty years before moving to Pinole. Becky and I spent our first night living together marveling over the bullet that came through our bathroom window as we were moving in. Pinole's a fricking non-violent paradise. Still, I understand the anger, especially if your kids play in the park.

B. has never made a secret of his prejudices. When we've talked, I've let him know when I disagree with him. When I can get a word in edgewise. He steamrollers conversations. I don't, except in comments over at Bérubé's blog. When B. gets onto a roll, I spend a lot of time telling him I need to leave.

Apparently I need to be more forceful in communiciating what I do and do not want to listen to: he somehow thought it was appropriate to punctuate his diatribe with the word "niggers." I was stunned. It happened over and over again. The word itself was in no way the most offensive thing he said. Even without the word, his rant was full of talk about "too lazy to make their kids a baloney sandwich" and complaining about free lunch programs; talk about "yeah, it's a stereotype but stereotypes are based in truths"; talking about the "innate differences between whites and asians and blacks that cause poor whites to become non-violent losers, poor asians to study hard, and poor blacks to become thugs." (I paraphrase.)

I will confess right up front that I do not like confrontations I haven't been able to prepare for, and I suspect that B. is quick to physical violence... he's certainly quick to physically expressing anger. (Red face, abrupt gestures, and so forth.) So I stood there, slackjawed, outraged, not making eye contact and trying as hard as I could not to blow up and tell him to get the fuck out of my face.

Down the block from us is a public housing complex, an attractive(!) block of apartments for people with AIDS and other folks down on their luck. Many of the tenants are Black. We've lived within football-passing distance of the complex since it was built. There is a rumor in the neighborhood that it is a nest of crime. We have heard nothing from the complex for the last two years. Back then the cops were called over a domestic dispute - sad enough, but unlikely to involve other neighbors. When I heard the rumors about the place a couple years ago - in the context of another proposed development - I went to the Pinole PD and asked about incident reports. There were, to a first approximation, none. Becky is the Neighborhood Watch block captain; she's heard nothing. It's an innocent place, full of good folks, from what I can tell.

B. pointed at the complex, talked about how it was the center of all the crime in the neighborhood. I calmly told him that he was being silly. I reminded him I'd talked to the police captain, that our bedroom window looks out at the complex, that we'd seen no problems there at all. He looked at me as if I was denying the existence of the sun. "Well, if you want to ignore what's right in front of your face..." Then it was on to "nigger this" and "nigger that" again, and I was back to looking at my feet and saying I needed to get inside.

Should I not have restrained myself? He knows damn well what I think about race - he has met Becky, for instance - and I've confronted him in other areas of his prejudice. A year or so ago he was on about gay adoption, and I told him I'd have been better off had I been adopted at age 9 or so by a couple like Frankie and Lance (the guys whose house we were standing in front of at the time.)

But his dropping the word "nigger" into every paragraph - "We gave the niggers too much in the 1960s" and so forth - just absolutely gobsmacked me.

I have been far too reticent, I am thinking to myself.

At least now my suspicions have been confirmed. He is no clueless but essentially good-hearted white man. His fear of the other has warped him. He's no avuncular Archie Bunker: he is a rabid racist. At least I know where the rest of us stand in his estimation.

He keeps talking about wanting to move to where just white people live. I wish he wasn't just all talk.

Posted by Chris Clarke at June 16, 2005 03:44 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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"Should I not have restrained myself?"

your own answer

"He'd been drinking."
"...I suspect that B. is quick to physical violence... he's certainly quick to physically expressing anger. (Red face, abrupt gestures, and so forth.)"

Wise choice to refrain from confrontation - of course. There is no longer a need to be cordial -obviously your time/energy is best spent in passive non-violence. Let you light shine as you do here regularly, and he'll feel/witness that.
thanks for sharing -

Posted by: connie at June 16, 2005 04:20 PM
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He is no clueless but essentially good-hearted white man. His fear of the other has warped him. He's no avuncular Archie Bunker: he is a rabid racist.

It's a fine line, isn't it? I mean, this particular guy obviously isn't in a particularly blurry place on the spectrum, but good old avuncular Archie Bunker was himself a pretty nasty bigot.

I've got that in my own (married-into) family. Folks I like, and even respect, who are capable of serious racist nastiness. Nothing so horrid as "nigger," but stuff that I don't picture myself putting up with when I'm at home alone constructing fantasies of righteous banter and terrrible swift swords.

In such situations, I generally wind up getting all "well, actually, it's my experience that..." and feeling lousy immediately afterwards.

Posted by: Angus at June 16, 2005 07:24 PM
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I think you could do nothing but walk away. It would be unclear to him what principle you were arguing for (racial equality? polite language? it might have been a white shooter?), and he wouldn't understand your point even if you explained it. You said he'd been drinking.

He was also justifiably upset that his little park was shot up. That it was probably related to the projects is obvious. That the projects are mostly black is also obvious. That all blacks are criminals is neither obvious nor true, but it's the path his frustration chose to travel.

I'm not condoning his language. I condemn it. But you did well not to confront it; nothing good lay down that road.

Posted by: carpundit at June 16, 2005 07:56 PM
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He was also justifiably upset that his little park was shot up. That it was probably related to the projects is obvious.

I'm sorry if I was unclear about that: there's no way it was related to the "projects." (Which are actually a very nice set of apartments.) The shooting was (from dozens of witnesses' descriptions) done by four or five young men, somewhere between 17-25 years in age. There's no one like that in the apartments down the block. It's old folks, singles, young couples, and single moms with kids.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at June 16, 2005 08:20 PM
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Angus' comment reminds me of the one All in the Family where Archie accidentally goes to a Klan meeting. This guy explains the idea to him, without specifically saying it's the Klan, and Archie's all for it. Then he shows up and the masks come out and all of a sudden it's "no, no, I'm not that kind of person". But then you know he doesn't go home and reevaluate his life choices - it's just a funny thing that happened.

I bet that if you went up to this guy's face and called him a racist (bad idea, not condoned by me), he'd deny it until he couldn't breathe. "I'm not racist, stereotypes have basis in fact", etc etc. So, not only is he probably more like Archie Bunker than is comfortable to think about (personally, I want to keep liking Archie), he'll probably also never stop talking the way he talks - he can justify it to himself. Confrontation wouldn't help. Which sucks.

Posted by: Allison at June 16, 2005 09:49 PM
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Why waste your breath on someone who doesn't listen?

Intolerance ceases not with intolerance.

Posted by: Carrie at June 17, 2005 06:50 AM
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Chris: I can't tell you how much of a relief it is to me to hear that you also have problems such as what to say and do in situations like this. I know you keep saying you don't like conflict but that's hard for me to understand, given how strong your voice is here and elsewhere. I have these same problems and it sucks.

B sounds like my landlord who called the Rumsey tribe--as we were driving up Cache Creek on the way to a hike--"lazy bastards" (he derives his own income by sitting in a comfy chair, reading the WSJ and picking up the phone to his broker, having inherited a bunch of ag land he has never worked in his life, which is now worth a fortune). I did give my point of view, which was that given how screwed over this community has been, good luck to them, if people are stupid enough to come and pour money down their casino toilets, but the overtness of the racism was still shocking. We were in his truck, on a way to a hike as his guests, and more confrontation than that was probably unwise or at least rude and likely to make for a very uncomfortable day.

But I still feel it was warranted. I'm unwilling to think that B. and J. are jurassic relics. I think they're on a huge rebound, given permission by Rush Limbaugh and other pleasant characters and that if we don't let them know that this kind of talk is just plain not to be tolerated, they'll keep doing it, and you know where this is heading. Is already there, alas. Three burning crosses in Durham the night we arrived a few weeks ago are sure signs that there are people -- I hope it's an asshole tiny minority but I'm afraid it's not -- who are quite sure that the multicultural society was an aberrant blip and they can make it go away.

Maybe we need some bat-ninja training.

Posted by: Pica at June 17, 2005 06:54 AM
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Frankly I would rather the residents of the public housing project move to Idaho than another of these idiots who are hoping that if all their neighbors are white they will also all be bigots. They arent.

Posted by: Desert Donkey at June 17, 2005 12:08 PM
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I think you did the right thing, though I also know how difficult it is to accept the turned cheek reaction. It makes me feel weak, as though I am an accomplice to the hate, rather than an educator.

Only when drunk have I put my fist where my heart is, and the word "nigger" is a sure way to set me off...if I've thrown back a few. Having grown up in the south, I sometimes deal with similar encounters when I return for visits and I usually try to remain calm and say things like, "Well, (X), you know as well as I do that it isn't just the black folks who cause trouble." If I revert to the southern accent of my youth, these comments might make an impact, though I fear they just label me a rebel turned Yankee in the eyes of those men.

Most recently, though, I dealt with racism when an old friend's younger brother came to New York to visit. He stayed with me to save some money. After spending twenty minutes listening to him rant about NYC being full of faggots, dirty niggers and wetbacks, I calmly told him that he was never to use any of those terms in my apartment or I would kick him out. He was baffled. He really didn't understand why I would find the terms offensive. He seemed equal parts embarrassed and confused.

Perhaps more angering than outright racists, though, are those that claim to be enlightened yet still remove themselves from contact with other races and ethnicities. My mom may talk the talk, but she sure walks to the other side of the street if she sees a young black man walking towards her on a deserted stretch of road. Until miscegenation renders such fear irrelevant, we've a long way to go.

Posted by: Hungry Hyaena at June 17, 2005 01:33 PM
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Creepy, creepy, creepy. I so know what you mean. In fact, you've got me loathing myself and I wasn't even there. It's because of stuff like that that I feel remaining middle class is life or death.

Posted by: murky at June 17, 2005 08:46 PM
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I think Pica is correct: these people are "given permission" by Rush et al and then those supported by these ultra rightists--GWB and Co--are put in power and they think yes, racism is endorsed by all right thinking Americans.

I don't know what to do, except refuse to grant permission for anyone to talk that way in my presence.

I did that to my father, and ended up not speaking to him for, what is it now, 15 years?

Posted by: KathyF at June 18, 2005 12:14 AM
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