I just watched on YouTube a video clip taken outside a rally for Sara Palin in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, a town where I worked for thirty-two years. The crowd was raucous and racist, blithely spitting out vile remarks. Congressman John Murtha later told a Pittsburgh newspaper that ‘There’s no question western Pennsylvania is a racist area. …’ Murtha was roundly chastised for his comments, mainly by Republicans, which had to mark a new height in irony. Murtha, sad to say, was right on the mark. Racism was endemic when I lived in Johnstown, and it appears little has changed. What follows is a story I wrote about a confrontation in a bowling alley. The events occurred in 1984, but by the looks of things, it could happen just as easily today in the Flood City.
It was a mid-Sunday afternoon in late winter. We had just finished our match, and I was disappointed with my poor performance. For some reason I could not prevent my left wrist from turning over when I released my bowling bowl, and this caused it to hook disastrously to the right. My teammates groaned as my scores plummeted about forty pins below my average and our chances of winning the league championship melted away. It wasn’t a cutthroat league, so they commiserated as I packed away my equipment and put on my coat to leave. As I passed by the manager’s desk, I glanced up at the television set on the wall. A professional basketball game was in progress and since I am a basketball junky, I stopped to watch. The Chicago Bulls were playing the Boston Celtics. I disliked the Celtics and their rabid fans and arrogant general manager and former coach, Red Auerbach. I was gratified to see that the Bulls’ star, Michael Jordan, was playing a spectacular game, on his way to scoring more than sixty points in what turned out to be a double overtime Celtics victory.
Another man was watching the game, along with his young son. I recognized him—an average bowler and delivery truck driver, something of a loudmouth with a higher opinion of his bowling skills than his ability warranted. Normally I would have ignored him, but Jordan’s great game was so exciting that I just had to say something about it. So I said,’Boy, isn’t he an amazing player.’ This innocent remark sent the man into a tirade. ‘That nigger’s not the best player. The best player is that white guy, Larry Bird.’ Now Johnstown is a racist town. It is almost impossible to go into a bar in a white neighborhood and not hear the word ‘nigger’ within thirty minutes. While warming up before a basketball pickup game, one of my students commented that he liked the Boston Celtics because they were the ‘white team.’ In 1922 the mayor of Johnstown ordered all black residents who had not lived in the town for at least five years to leave. Black men had been recruited to work in the city by the steel companies in the wake of the bitter 1919 strike, and the mayor issued his order after an incident involving a black person and the police. It is not known exactly how many African Americans left town, but the growth of the black population stopped. In the 1980s, blacks comprised less than 3 percent of the city’s residents.
Yet even though I had often experienced open racism in Johnstown, I was startled by the this man’s vehemence. His face turned red, and the veins on his neck were showing. I said, ‘What difference does skin color make? Jordan is a great player.’ He glared at me and yelled, ‘Don’t tell me about the niggers. I lived near them. I know what they’re like. They’re no fucking good.’ I looked down at his son and said, ‘Hey, you’re really setting a fine example for your kid. He’ll grow up to be a bigot just like you.’ At this, he lost his composure and said, ‘Listen, four eyes, I’ll knock your fucking glasses off. I don’t give a fuck who you are.’ I noticed that no one at the desk was making any effort to defuse this situation. So I just said, ‘Go ahead and hit me if you want to.’ He didn’t, and I picked up my bag and left.
Filmmaker Michael Moore once chided liberals for not spending much time with working people. He suggested that they go to car race tracks and bowling alleys. Moore was probably thinking of workers as the ‘salt of the earth,’ the men and women who do the work. He is right, but he should remember that being a worker doesn’t mean that a person’s mind is clear and free of dangerous hatreds. My antagonist’s racism was disgustingly blatant, but no more so that of millions of others.
Most racism is more subtle, so woven into the fabric of everyday life that whites just take it for granted. It crosses all classes, but that of white workers is the saddest and says the most about how this economic system deforms our personalities. The man who confronted me in the bowling alley was a delivery truck driver, doing menial labor at low wages. He obviously had been poor as a child. Yet he hated the poorest and most exploited of workers. He had been led to believe that black people are the lowest of the low, and since he grew up with them, he must be contemptible himself. This filled him with shame, but he dealt with this by coming to think that black persons must in some sense be responsible for not only their own misery but his as well. His hatred transformed shame into superiority, a feeling encouraged by other whites, not least of whom were employers who used racism to drive a wedge between those whose alliance would be most dangerous to their power.
It is hard for me to think of the incident in the bowling alley without remembering the examples set for me by teachers, friends, clergy, and other adults. The minstrel show my ninth grade English teacher had us perform. The college biology teacher, a monk no less, who told us that if a white woman gave birth to a black child, there must have been a ‘nigger in the woodpile.’ The geography of my hometown, where the part where black residents lived was called ‘the lower end.’ The endless abuse my father took in the factory after my sister married a black man. I won’t deny that progress in race relations has been made, but the white suburban kids who filled my classes were, just a few years ago still writing racist graffiti on the bathroom walls and fuming about welfare in their essays. Just how different was their upbringing from mine? White people are raised to be racists, and it takes a mighty effort to overcome this. I know. I’m still trying.
Michael D. Yates is Associate Editor of Monthly review magazine.He is the author of Cheap Motels and Hot Plates: an Economist’s Travelogue and Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. Yates can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org