I was stunned recently while reading an Op-Ed column in The New York Times by an African-American man who lived in the upper west side of Manhattan. The man was in a frenzy of rage because the owner of a delicatessen had mistakenly accused a well-known black actor of shoplifting a loaf of bread.
The proprietor had quickly and effusively apologized, but that was not enough. His mistake, according to the columnist, was close kin to calling the man a racial epithet commonly used in rap songs but now verboten in any other kind of conversation.
I was amazed because of the sheer stupidity of the argument — I wonder how many times the deli owner has had items shoplifted and how tight a wire he must have to walk — and I wonder, once the owner has apologized thoroughly, how much more penance he has to make for a simple mistake. I wonder how a small shopkeeper’s error can be equated with a deliberate insult.
But I was even more amazed at how times have changed since I was a lad. I am now 68. I grew up in Silver Spring, Md., then a small, almost all-white suburb of Washington, D.C.
Explicit racism, legally sanctioned racism, was a fact of daily life. My little elementary school, on magnificent grounds tended to by us kids, was legally segregated. The only black man on the grounds was the kindly old janitor, Willy, endlessly shoveling coal into the boiler on winter days, endlessly sweeping the floors.
Even in Silver Spring, which had many Jews, it was not rare for passing “hard guys,” James Dean wannabes in lowered Mercury cruisers, to shout out “kike” or “Jew bastard” to us Jewish boys pedaling by on our bicycles. Even my best friend as a child — and he was a good friend, a Congregationalist, very high-end denomination — used to tell me that although he liked me personally, Jews generally were thieves. Gatherings of my Jewish youth group, he insisted, were basically gatherings of thieves to plan strategy.
The lives of blacks even in the nation’s capital were miserable. As I passed their neighborhoods in my parents car, a pale 1955 Blue Chevy 210, the economy model for my frugal parents, I saw the ragged black kids suffering in the cruel Washington summers, opening hydrants to cool off, adults lying drunk on the sidewalks. I remember even some of our teachers called black people by horrible names in school class.
If I were to wake up as a child of color, I used to think to myself, I would kill myself. Yes. That was how terrible their lives seemed to me when I was a small child.
Now, fast-forward to 2013. Blacks have every possible door open to them. Blacks can be heads of giant corporations. They can and do get preferential treatment to the best schools. They are a huge power group on the national scene. Television is largely geared to the black viewer. We have a partly black president.
As to Jews, there are no doors closed to us at all, except at some country clubs in the nation and co-ops in New York City. Jews are at the summit of national media and financial, business, and political power.
The Jews (far from the notions of anti-Semites) are often bitterly divided among themselves and have wildly different opinions about key issues, even about Israel, but they are no longer a distinct “out group,” confined to earning livings as teachers or proprietors of small shops or as personal injury lawyers.
This doesn’t approach what’s happened with women and Hispanics and Asians. Their horizons are also unlimited.
It may play well on academic campuses in some locales to pretend that there is still racism as a basic fact in America, and it’s certainly big news in The New York Times, but except for rare instances in remote corners of the national life it’s nonsense. Our son lives with his wife, a woman of Indian descent, in Greenville, S.C., where secession started. You might think it’s all Rebel flags and pickups with gun racks and no mingling of the races. In fact, Greenville is the most friendly, welcoming town I have ever seen anywhere — and this is the Deep South.
We all know we have terrible problems with the economy, with lingering inequality (which is bound to happen, by the way; people are not of equal talents), with the mistreatment of children, especially unborn children. We all know we have a pop culture that is a trash can of moldering garbage. But when we take inventory of America, let’s not just make up nonsensical charges of a racism that’s long gone. We have had a revolution of righteousness about race. Let’s be proud.
Ben Stein is a writer, actor, and lawyer, who served as a speechwriter in the Nixon administration as the Watergate scandal unfolded. He began his unlikely road to stardom when director John Hughes cast him as the numbingly dull economics teacher in the urban comedy, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off." Read more reports from Ben Stein — Click Here Now.
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