Menckens Ghost

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A St. Louisan on the history of race relations in Ferguson and the nation

To fully understand race relations in Ferguson, Missouri, as well as in the nation, it is necessary to go back to the mid-1960s, to a time when Lyndon Johnson had just strong-armed his fellow Southern Democrats to put aside their long-held racism by supporting the Voting Rights Act, the War on Poverty, and the Great Society.

Let's begin in an employee restroom in a dark, dingy basement of an exclusive country club in a ritzy suburb of St. Louis.

Fifteen years old at the time, I was cleaning the restroom, which hadn't been cleaned in years.  It and the adjoining locker room and break room were the domain of the all-black janitorial, maintenance and kitchen staff.  Or I should say, it was all-black until I joined the staff for that summer and the following summer. 

It was my first day on the job, and cleaning the restroom was the first task that my black boss, Jewel, had given me.  I didn't know if he was testing me to see if a white kid would take orders from a black guy or if he disliked whites and wanted to humiliate me.  Whatever his motive, we went on to establish a good working relationship.

As I was finishing the unpleasant task, a black dishwasher who worked in the upstairs kitchen walked in.  He was a burly ex-prize fighter with a scarred face and a damaged brain from too many punches to the head.  Noticeably drunk, he unzipped his pants, peed on the floor, and said, "Clean this up too, whitey."

Another black coworker, a porter, was walking by and saw what was happening.  Lithe as a wide receiver and strong as a lineman, he threw the larger but older and slower man against the restroom wall, grabbed him by the throat, and said in a calm but menacing voice, "You get your black ass down there and clean it up yourself."

That was my first lesson in diversity.  It was a real-life lesson, not the comic-book version of diversity that is propagated today in K-12 schools, universities, the media, government agencies, and large corporations.  I learned that all races consist of bad people and good people, jerks and gentlemen, and racists and non-racists.

I got the job at the country club because my Mom worked as a clerk in the club's front office.  Her boss was clubhouse manager Bill Williams, a black man who was the best-dressed and classiest man I had ever seen in my 15 years.  He was a black version of Cary Grant.  In my working-class neighborhood, men didn't even own suits, let alone finely tailored ones with starched, cuff-linked white shirts underneath, as William did.  I called him "Mr. Williams."  

My Mom and I could work at the club but could not be members, even if my family could afford a membership.  Membership was open to white Protestants, not Italian Catholics?or Jews or blacks.

One time, my Mom invited Mr. Williams to visit our family at our tiny home.  He pulled up in his big Buick Electra.  We were the talk of the neighborhood, because cars like that were just as rare as blacks in our small suburb.   The Buick even had power windows.

Bill Williams was at the top of the employee pecking order at the country club, excluding the white club president, the white greens keeper, and the white golf pro.  Immediately beneath him were the black waiters, all of whom learned their trade and their refined manners as Pullman waiters on cross-country passenger trains.  Next came the black chef and the black cooks; then my boss, and then me and my coworkers. 

All of the blacks above me had nicer cars than my family's rusty Dodge, which had torn seats, a manual transmission, and roll-down windows.  Like Bill Williams, the waiters drove big Buicks.  For extra money on the side, I would wash and wax their cars.

University faculty numbskulls would claim that due to my white (actually olive) skin, I was ipso facto from privilege as a kid and that my European forebears got their power and advantage from subjugating, colonizing and enslaving people of color.  In truth, my grandparents were peasants in Italy who immigrated to the U.S. long before Mussolini tried to colonize Libya and long after the enslavement of Africans in America and their eventual emancipation.  However, if "privilege" means having it better than most blacks in St. Louis at the time, then I am guilty as charged.   By that definition, Bill Williams and the former Pullman waiters would also be guilty of privilege.

In any event, my black coworkers would invite me to their employee picnics in St. Louis' grand Forest Park, where they would barbecue ribs under the stately oaks, sycamores and maples.  I didn't know at the time that I would never again eat ribs as good as those.

I also didn't know that the scene of happy, intact black families was going to mostly disappear soon, thanks to the Great Society and changing social mores.

You see, most of the black families back then, or about 70 percent to be specific, consisted of married parents and their children.  Today, about 70 percent of black families are single-parent families, with most of the families headed by mothers who have tragically "married" the welfare state instead of the father of their children.  This sorry fact has made black social pathologies worse, including the pathologies of school dropouts, delinquency, crime, obesity, the associated diseases such as diabetes, and, in a vicious cycle, even more fatherless children. 

The War on Drugs exacerbated the problems, as unskilled and uneducated young black males without the civilizing influence of responsible fathers and steady work were incarcerated in record numbers for dealing in drugs.  Also exacerbating the problem was urban renewal, which was a code name in the fifties and sixties for Negro removal.   The progressive idea was to move blacks from substandard housing to high-rise government housing, including, in 1954, the notorious Pruitt-Igoe complex near downtown St. Louis.  This concentrated the social pathologies in one place and brought them to critical mass.  

Years later Pruitt-Igoe would be torn down.  It was replaced by the new progressive idea for subsidized housing:  townhouses with all the modern conveniences.  I still remember how angry my Dad was when he read a chirpy story about the homes in the left-liberal St. Louis Post-Dispatch and saw photos of how nice they were, much nicer than our old home that he was constantly maintaining and improving with sweat equity.  My Mom had always dreamed of having a nice new home, but he couldn't give her one. 

It was okay to help the poor, my Dad thought, but not to give them a nicer home than the homes of the people paying the bill.  He also thought that it was foolish to give people new homes without asking for anything in return, such as helping to build the homes, which would have instilled discipline and pride and taught them marketable skills.  Not being college-educated, he didn't know that progressive intellectuals were saying that it would be humiliating to ask poor people to work in return for housing and other help, although that is exactly what their hero FDR did during the Great Depression with the Works Progress Administration.   Ironically, many WPA construction projects can be seen in St. Louis.

Another progressive idea, forced busing, accelerated the white flight from the City of St. Louis to the surrounding suburbs of St. Louis County.  Blacks with the wherewithal eventually followed, especially to such near-north suburbs as Ferguson, as the former black ghettos in the City of St. Louis north of Lindell Blvd. and Forest Park were gentrified.  It didn't help their economic situation when the nearby General Motors plant closed and when other industry left the St. Louis region, a metropolitan area that once had one of the highest concentrations of Fortune 500 headquarters and major operations.  Inflexible and recalcitrant unions didn't help matters. 

Tellingly, the Italian section of St. Louis remained unscathed from the social upheavals that pressed in on three sides of the community.  Unlike much of the city proper, it didn't experience white flight and turn into a black ghetto and slum.  A tourist attraction today known as the Hill, it was known as Dago Hill when my parents grew up there along with baseball greats Yogi Berra and Joe Garagiola.  The community of tiny bungalows, two flats, and tiny manicured yards with vegetable gardens in the back next to the ash pit and alley remained unscathed for one reason:  Italian homeowners and realtors would not sell to blacks.   They only would sell to other Italians.

Racist?  Not really.  Racial?  Definitely. 

Only in the intellectual vacuum of academia can pseudo intellectuals moralize that it was wrong and racist for Italians to not sell to blacks.  Actually, the reality was that they were protecting everything they had immigrated to this country for?namely, to work hard, save money, live in safety in a community centered on the parish church and school, and to invest their savings in a house and their family's future.  A symbol of these values still can be found in front of the parish church.  It is a sculpture of an Italian immigrant family carrying all of their possessions in a few valises. 

My grandparents were such immigrants.  My Dad's dad worked as a coal miner in southern Illinois before moving to St. Louis to work as a barkeep and, after that, in a speakeasy during Prohibition.  Grandpa and Grandma lived on the second floor of the two flat they owned.  My aunt and uncle lived on the first floor, where they raised five children on a tile setter's pay in a home with two bedrooms and one bathroom.  My Mom, who was orphaned as a toddler when her parents died, was raised by an aunt and uncle, both immigrants.  Her uncle worked as a waiter and was the sole provider.  They lived in the upstairs rental unit of a two-flat and never owned a car.

Because taxes were so much lower back then, my grandparents could afford to send my Dad to a private school, the academically rigorous St. Louis University High School, which was run by the Jesuits.  My Mom also attended a Catholic high school.  Blacks were consigned to awful inner-city public schools, with no way of escaping.  Sadly, that is still true today in Ferguson, where the local high school is so bad that it lost its state accreditation.  Yet, beholden to teacher unions, Democrats continue to oppose giving blacks a ticket to escape:  education vouchers.

Although St. Louis was settled mostly by Germans, Italians and blacks, most politicians and police were Irish.  My Dad told stories of Italians being harassed by the police, who treated them as if they were all gangsters.

Neither my grandparents nor parents were responsible for the plight of blacks in America, a plight that began centuries before Italians arrived on the Hill, by the forebears of today's East Coast bluebloods.  The same with German immigrants.  They had nothing to do with slavery, Jim Crow or the socioeconomic condition of blacks.  If anything, Germans improved the economy with their beer-making and tool-and-die-making skills, just as Italians improved the economy with their skills as tailors, shoe makers, bakers, and manual laborers.  

Italians would have been insane to sacrifice themselves and their families by allowing their close-knit community of Dago Hill to turn into a slum, which is exactly what would have happened if they had sold to blacks or to white slumlords in those years.

Speaking of white slumlords:  After I had worked for two summers at the country club, I worked another summer in a job where I saw the hypocrisy of left-liberals, especially Jewish left-liberals.  I worked for a company owned by a former mayor of St. Louis.  The company would help taverns to obtain or renew their liquor licenses, a process that required getting the majority of property owners within a 300-ft. radius of the tavern to sign a document saying that they had no objection to the license.  Invariably, when I tracked down the owners of slum rental properties within the 300-ft radius, I found that many of the owners lived in swank high rises and single-family homes in the Jewish enclaves immediately west of the City of St. Louis, in University City and Clayton.   The enclaves were primarily Democratic and left-liberal, populated by the very same people who would castigate the Italians on the Hill for not selling to blacks but who didn't give a damn about their own black tenants.

Like my uncle, my Dad worked as a tile setter for a few years before taking a job in the warehouse of a tile company.  He did not join the thuggish tile-setter union and worked as a scab.  Sometimes he'd have me accompany him to job sites where new homes were being built.  He would ask me to look out for a big black car full of burly men and to warn him if I saw them approaching.  He was afraid of union thugs beating him up for working as a scab.  If they had, the Irish cops would have looked the other way.

As bad as that was, it was worse for blacks.  Trade unions at the time excluded blacks from union membership, a practice that was condoned by Democratic politicians.

Still another summer, I worked as a union painter.  All of my fellow painters were white.  I got that job because I dated a girl I met at the country club, where her dad, the president of the painters union, was a member.  Dating a white girl was also something that blacks could not do in those years.  My black coworkers at the country club were afraid to even glance at the spoiled and pampered teenage girls and their mothers who lounged at the pool all day in their two-piece swimsuits while charging food and sodas on their club accounts and being waited on by the black staff.  It became obvious to me how class and racial resentments could easily develop.  Although I thought that the club members were uppity and hoity-toity, class resentment didn't take hold with me, because I was confident that in spite of my humble roots and ethnicity, I could make something of myself through hard work and education.  Blacks, understandably, were not as confident.

St. Louis had always been a crucible of racial tensions.  Depending on one's perspective, it is either the most Southern of Northern cities, or the most Northern of Southern cities.  St. Louis was pro-Union during the Civil War, but Confederate sympathies prevailed not too far south of the city.   For example, Ulysses S. Grant, prior to becoming a Union general, worked in St. Louis and was an abolitionist.  However, his in-laws, the Dentons, whom he and his wife lived with, owned slaves on their farm, which is now a National Park in a suburb to the south of St. Louis.  Across a road from the farm is the estate of the Busch family, of Anheuser-Busch fame.

The infamous Dredd Scott case began in St. Louis.  The Old Courthouse in downtown St. Louis has a small museum dedicated to the case.  And race riots are not new to St. Louis.

So now I look back on all of this and wonder how different St. Louis, Ferguson and the nation would be if social policy had taken a different turn in the mid-sixties?if the War on Poverty and Great Society had been designed with incentives for welfare recipients to work, marry, and take ownership of public housing through sweat equity; if Catholic schools hadn't been run out of business by high taxes; if blacks had been given vouchers to attend those schools or other private schools; if hypocritical slumlords had been exposed and embarrassed by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and other media; and if progressives, left-liberals and university intelligentsia didn't have the ugly racism of low expectations for blacks.

I believe that if this turn had been made, then there would be a lot more blacks today like Bill Williams and the former Pullman waiters.  I also believe that blacks would be as prosperous, law-abiding, and successful as Italian-Americans have become.

Granted, I could be wrong, which I have been many times throughout my life.  Unfortunately, admitting mistakes about race and welfare is not part of the character of progressives, left-liberals and university professors.

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