BY MICHAEL R. WENGER
Both personally and professionally, my life journey has been blessed by its racial diversity. I grew up in a working class Jewish family in New York City and got involved in the civil rights movement while in college in the early 1960s. In the late 1960s, I worked in the anti-poverty program in West Virginia. Then, in 1970, just three years after the U.S. Supreme Court, in Loving v. Virginia, ruled that laws prohibiting inter-racial marriage were unconstitutional, I married an African American woman from rural, segregated North Carolina. Although we divorced 11 years later and I am now married to a white woman, we remain a close family with three children, four grandchildren and a great grandson.
Professionally, I had the privilege of serving as Deputy Director for Outreach and Program Development for President Clinton’s Initiative on Race in 1997 and 1998. Since then, I have worked at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused exclusively on issues of particular concern to the African American community and other communities of color.
Through my experiences I have had the opportunity to peer into a world far beyond the comprehension of most white people in our society. I have become aware of the pain that well-meaning white Americans inflict on people of color, often without knowing it, and I have come to recognize the richness that awaits those with the courage to embrace our nation’s growing diversity. Yet, I also have come to understand how much I still have to learn about race in this country and how much I will never be able learn. The following excerpt from the book’s first chapter illustrates what I mean.
“Hello.” He smiled as he stuck out his hand. “My name is Hector Hyacinthe.” I had never met him, but I recognized his name from the list of board members and knew he was a prominent businessman from Westchester County, New York. “Mike Wenger,” I replied as we shook hands.
“Good to meet you, Mike. Are you from D.C.?”
“Nope, originally from Brooklyn,” I replied.
“Really? What part?”
“East New York.”
“Really? What street?”
“Three eighty!” he proclaimed triumphantly.
“That’s right across the street from my grandparents’ house. They lived at three-eighty-one.”
Hector nodded. “Yep, lived there until I finished high school.”
We spent the next several minutes comparing notes on the old neighborhood. Then I spent the remainder of the evening trying to reconcile my surprise at what I’d just learned about Hector with what I’d suddenly realized was the subconscious mixed message of my childhood. Simply stated: “Blacks deserve equal rights but they are not really our equals.” More importantly, I was left to ponder how this mixed message conspired to make us liberal white people complicit in the pervasive racial discrimination that we so glibly condemn…
All the neighbors on my grandparents’ side of the street had similar backgrounds. They were primarily older Russian and Polish immigrant families who had bought their homes many years earlier and raised their children on that block. Now, they yearned for nothing more than to finish their lives in these familiar surroundings, the men playing checkers in the park, the women preparing for daily or weekly visits from children and grandchildren, most of whom had not strayed far from the old neighborhood. They feared, however, that their modest dream was being challenged by an influx of black families with young children. Many were from the South, and they now occupied every house on the other side of the street, two or three families to an apartment, in some cases. Although they were separated only by the width of a tree-lined city street, these two groups had virtually no contact with each other. Not even the Berlin Wall that divided colorful and lively West Berlin from gray and dreary East Berlin when I was there in 1983 could have made the divide any more explicit.
The houses on my grandparents’ side of the street were all owner-occupied and had the look of being lovingly cared for as the prized possessions they were. Their red brick exteriors were clean and bright and screens hung in every window frame. Meticulously trimmed hedges defined each owner’s postage stamp front yard. Across the street, nearly all the families were renters, the prevailing ambiance was drab, window screens were the exception, and little healthy shrubbery was visible in the front yards, many of which were paved over. There was no obvious hostility between the two sides of the street, but there was no communication, either. Rarely did anybody on my grandparents’ side of the street even park their car on the other side of the street. As children, we understood that we were not to walk on the other side of the street. I spent a major portion of my childhood at my grandparents’ house, but until I met Hector when I was fifty-seven years old, I’d never actually met anyone who lived across the street…
The unspoken message of my childhood, conveyed by my grandparents’ attitude toward the people across the street and by my parents’ acceptance of Woodmere’s norms, was that black people were different. Those who lived across the street from my grandparents didn’t take pride in their homes, or work hard, or place much emphasis on doing well in school. As a child I did not comprehend the fact that they were renting from landlords who had fled the neighborhood and who refused to maintain their properties. Nor was I cognizant of the fact that while my grandfather could get a union job as a skilled laborer in a shoe factory, the best work that the men across the street could hope for were nonunion jobs as janitors in the factory. Nor did I perceive anything wrong with the fact that all of the teachers at the local elementary school had my skin color, as did all of the store owners and other financially successful adults I encountered in the neighborhood.
I doubt that any of the adults in our family were conscious of these factors. Certainly, no adult ever tried to discuss any of these issues with me. Of course, I would have been too young to understand such matters, anyway. But these negative racial stereotypes ingrained at an early age took hold, and I was unsettled, nearly fifty years later, by my surprise at finding someone from the even-numbered side of my grandparents’ block who had achieved Hector’s level of success. It seemed that I had learned the unspoken message quite well. In my head, I knew better, but I was incapable of turning off the default setting in my brain, even if the setting lasted for just a split second.
Michael R. Wenger is a Senior Fellow and Acting Vice President for Civic Engagement and Governance at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, DC. He also teaches classes on race and minority relations and on Institutional Racism: Policies and Prescriptions as an adjunct faculty member in the sociology department at The George Washington University. This passage is excerpted from his memoir, My Black Family, My White Privilege: A White Man’s Journey Through the Nation’s Racial Minefield. He can be contacted at email@example.com.