If there is a silver lining to the last four years of the Trump presidency, it’s the fact that I have had an opportunity to think long and hard about who I am and what I believe in. And also to come to grips with the fact that the person I thought I used to be was nothing like I actually was. For as much as I liked to pride myself on being tolerant and accepting of people from other races and cultures, the fact of the matter is that as a child and even an adult, I was far from it.
You have to understand the environment in which I grew up. I was a white child in a predominantly white neighborhood in the north San Fernando Valley. In fact, most of the families on my block were Jewish. I went to the local public elementary school, which is where I met and engaged with people of many different races and cultures. This was in the 1980s, a time when busing was being implemented with various levels of success. We had African Americans and Latin Americans coming to our valley from far away as a mechanism to integrate schools and to allow the children from poorer areas to benefit from the better public schools. At least, that was how I perceived it.
I was always impressed by the kids who would wake up so early to get on a bus and travel an hour or more to go to school, just to get back on the bus after school and take the hour trip back home. I was sad for those kids, wondering if they got to do the fun after-school activities that I did, like little league, and also wondering what their home lives were like. I would like to think that I admired them for what they were doing, but I don’t know that they had a choice.
I got into a lot of fights in elementary school. I don’t recall why, I think part of it may be because I was an identical twin and we were thus easy to pick on, but it was on more than one occasion that my brother and I were involved in a fight, and it was almost always with a kid who had come to school as part of the busing program. When my parents would come to the principal’s office, they were told that we had to understand that the other kid involved in the fight came from an area which was different from ours, where fighting may be the only way that they knew how to settle differences. I was never suspended for fighting and I don’t remember the other kid ever being suspended; it seemed instead that the principal gave him a pass because of his upbringing. I won’t say that I began going to school in fear, because that isn’t accurate, but I definitely developed a wariness when it came to the children who were bused in.
That wariness didn’t go away when I entered junior high school. In fact, it only got worse. Not that there were any more fights, but in 1990, it was the height of the Bloods vs. Crips gang wars and African American kids were wearing blue belts or red belts. And a small, white, Jewish 7th grader is afraid of everything, especially when the gym class was a combination of grades, the little 7th graders with the older and bigger 9th graders. I would be in gym class with some of these kids and get picked on, or teased, or sometimes pushed aside and I would be scared to death to do anything other than cower or walk away. It didn’t happen often, mind you, but I was very careful about where I stepped. I felt like I was their enemy. Again, these kids were being bused in from other areas of the city where the environment was different. When I saw Boyz in the Hood for the first time, I got a view of what my classmates went through, but it didn’t make me feel compassion for them, just more fear of them.
The early 1990s brought on the beginning of gangster rap, NWA, and Dr. Dre, and I wanted nothing to do with any of it. I liked to think that I was tolerant of all races, but the fact of the matter was that I was tolerant so long as they fit into the mold that I wanted them to fit into. When it came to rap, it had to be MC Hammer instead of Dr. Dre, and I would take Boyz II Men and Janet Jackson any day of the week. When I look back on it now, I think about how “nice” it was, when hip hop and rap were “safe.” I was deliberately not paying attention, because I didn’t want to acknowledge that there were African Americans who weren’t white-washed. On top of that, the only African American person that I had any dealings with outside of school was a client of my father’s who listened to Alice Cooper and was, to my adolescent mind, nothing like the African Americans from the inner cities.
I honestly don’t recall high school as being a time of any great fear or concern for the kids who were bused. The school was much larger than any I had gone to before, so the ethnic groups tended to stay together. I do remember, though, the LA riots in 1992, but I also recall not understanding the outcry. To me, Rodney King was a criminal who should have listened to the police, because if he had done what he was told he wouldn’t have been beaten, and the white truck driver, Reginald Denny, did not deserve what he got, having been targeted because he was a white man in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. But if they wanted to destroy their own community, I had no issue with it, it didn’t affect me in the least. In fact, the riots occurred on my parents anniversary and I remember wondering how the anniversary celebration was going to be affected by the riots. I do recall, though, being worried about going to school, that the kids who were bused might choose to riot in our community.
When I got to college, the perceptions of the ethnic groups were exacerbated, not from a violent standpoint, but because of a cultural division. My fraternity was nearly all white, as was almost the entire Greek system, and we in particular were nearly half Jewish. The Greeks didn’t interact with the Black Student Union or Mecha, the Latin American students group. But it was clear that there was a separation, especially when it came to student government, as the different ethnic groups seemed to try to push their own agendas. One of my biggest struggles when a part of student government was dealing with another member (who later became president) who was significantly involved with the Latin American student group. Whether he treated me as an enemy because I was white or I treated him as an enemy because he was Latin American, I don’t really know, but we did not work well together. Ultimately I determined that it was too difficult to interact with a student government that was, in my mind, focusing more on minority interests than my own, so I resigned.
I voted Republican from the first election in which I was able to vote. If I recall correctly, my first presidential election was in 1996, Bill Clinton against Bob Dole. I voted for Bob Dole, and I continued to vote Republican in every election. I voted for George W. Bush both times, John McCain, and Mitt Romney. I never voted for Barack Obama. In fact, in every election, if I was unsure of the candidates, I would simply find the Republican and vote for him or her as a default.
I now realize why I did it, and while I am not ashamed of myself, I feel that I have learned, about me, about who I was, and about who I want to be. I hesitate to say that I was racist, but I was definitely felt white privilege.
I was never a staunch conservative. There were parts of the Republican platform that I did not agree with, for example, their position on abortion. I have always believed that a woman should have the right to choose what is best for her body and that no law should regulate that. But I did agree with other principles of the Republican party, such as I knew and understood. I was in favor of capital punishment, smaller government, and capitalism. That thought process, by the way, continued into the Obama presidency; I was not a strong proponent of Obamacare and health care for all. I was more concerned with how it would affect my health insurance and found it difficult to accept that my insurance costs should increase because other people couldn’t afford it.
I also was against the liberalities that the Democrats were pushing, which I considered to be extreme I wanted stricter laws for criminals, harsher punishments, and less civil liberties. When it came to organizations like the ACLU, I was appalled with the extent to which they would go to give “criminals” more rights. As far as I was concerned, none of it would ever affect me because I wasn’t a criminal and so I wouldn’t have to worry about my civil liberties being taken from me. Again, as long as people obeyed the laws, what was there to fear?
I had convinced myself that I was tolerant of all races and cultures, that I was respectful and kind to all. But as I look back on it now, I wonder if I actually was. My voting record would suggest that I was less concerned about others than I was about myself. And I didn’t realize how good I had it, compared with so many others. I was the definition of white privilege, although even today I wonder whether a Jew can actually be a privileged white, with anti-Semitism around every corner. Did I know about police brutality? Of course, but I didn’t pay it any mind because it didn’t affect me. Was I worried about access to medical care? No, because I always had it and expected I always would. I didn’t consider others less lucky than me.
None of us can control the fact of our birth. We cannot control who our parents are, or what color or race or ethnicity or religion we are. I was born white and Jewish to parents who worked hard and were able to provide a comfortable lifestyle. I was very lucky. We ate out at restaurants, travelled, got new clothes, and, as far as I knew, never had to worry about money. That was my upbringing. I would like to think that I never took it for granted, though. I worked hard, studied, became a lawyer, and have made a life for my family. But the safety and security of my family has been vital to that success, knowing that when I failed I would have that safety net to fall back onto. And I never felt ashamed about it.
Instead I feel ashamed about how I perceived others. I think that I went through a period of time of ignoring what others were going through, their struggles to make ends meet, how they were treated by police, or how they were being treated by our government. When I would hear about it on the news, I’d think it was unfortunate, but my day to day life wasn’t affected by it. And I had no concern for immigrants, especially those who came over illegally. As far as I was concerned, my family had worked for what they had achieved, everyone else could do the same. I know now that this is not the truth. There is a stigma about different races, prejudices, and I had them too.
I think that it was only in the past four years that I discovered this. And maybe part of it is having kids of my own and wanting to instill in them tolerance and care for everyone. When I think of kids being put in cages, or families unable to pay for medical treatment, or families that are traveling miles and miles to come to America to escape persecution or to have a better life, I empathize with them whereas in the past I likely would have dismissed it. I would do anything for my kids and I understand the drive for others to do the same, and I can feel the pain and heartache when their expectations, and their children, are torn from them.
What kind of people are not moved by this? What kind of people would prefer that a child go without medical care than to give them much needed care and attention? What kind of people would accept putting children in cages, just because they came here hoping for a new life? These people who sit in those high places and can look down on the poor and the minorities and judge them do not realize how lucky they have it, to have been born who they are. They who can make decisions that will affect the lives of less fortunate don’t realize that no one chooses how to be born. The people in the central and south American countries who travel by caravan to get to America, escaping persecution and crime, just to have their children ripped from them and put into cages, they didn’t ask to be born in those countries. Just like those who are creating laws to separate those children from their parents didn’t ask to be born in Kentucky or Georgia or Tennessee or wherever they are from.
I had never thought about it that way before. Instead I thought about how it would affect me, how these civil liberties wouldn’t benefit me, how the health insurance changes would negatively affect me. I have never been scared for my life when interacting with a police officer, so I never considered that change was necessary. No one asks to be born white, or African American, or Latin American, or Jewish, or Asian American. So why should they be treated differently? I don’t know that I always understood that.
I used to be one of those who would say that I couldn’t be a racist because I had an African American friend. And I do and there is so much love between us. Or I would say that I was supportive of other cultures, but then would think that they had to fit into the mold that I had created for them, they had to be more like Boyz II Men and less like NWA. But having an African American friend does not make me a non-racist. Being a non-racist, being tolerant, means understanding that we are all equal and desiring of a world where everyone is treated the same, where no one has to live in fear of the police and no one is treated differently by our government because of the color of their skin or the language they speak. I used to be cynical about that, wanting people to learn English if they are going to live here. I don’t feel that way anymore.
I really just want people to be happy. We all deserve that right and anyone who is abridging that right needs to be removed from a position of power. I feel like I used to be someone like that, voting for people who would choose to abridge those rights. I am not anymore.
Does that make me a Democrat? No. I still believe in the capitalist society and the free market and that hard work will lead to success. I don’t agree with socialism or the equalization of classes. I can’t, I struggle with it, but I can’t get there. I do believe that the borders need to be secured and immigration policies strengthened. But there is a way to do it without creating criminals. I don’t know how, but there has to be a way. It cannot be an “either-or” proposition.
So am I a Democrat? No, I am not. But for the first time in my life, in 2016, I voted for a Democratic presidential candidate. Not because I wanted her, but because I didn’t want him. And in 2018, I voted completely Democratic, across the board. Not because I am one of them, because I am not the party of Trump.
It makes me sad for what our country has become, this belief that white privilege means it is acceptable to treat other people like second rate citizens. We all should have the same rights and the same benefits and the same privileges. White privilege should mean that we are cognizant of the advantages that we have and not lord that over other people who did not have the same advantages. Anything else, to me, is immoral and inhuman, and to be willing to trade that morality for money is something I cannot get behind.
The current incarnation of the Republican party seems to have ignored the teachings of Lincoln and have reverted to an “us vs. them” outlook, as if white privilege needs to be preserved. It doesn’t. We need to be more considerate of our fellow man. If you are a Republican does that mean that you are a racist? I am not going to say that. Instead, I will just query where the Republican party’s priorities are. How great can a country be if we step on the backs of the downtrodden? Shouldn’t we be lifting them up?
It makes me angry and it makes me sad. Sad that our country has become this. What used to be a melting pot, where people were welcomed to the new world to make better lives for themselves, we are now telling them that they can come, but only if they follow specific rules and are able to fend for themselves and not be a drain on society. Yes, there are always bad apples, but I have to believe that the bad apples are far outnumbered by the good hardworking people who come with the best of intentions and for a better life.
I know that America is better than that, but lately I am beginning to wonder. Who are these people who feel it is acceptable to oppress people and have no conscience about it?