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
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."
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."
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
infamous Dredd Scott case began in St.
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
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.