Mending Fence

     White cops killing black men is news today – which is odd, since it wasn’t news for 200 years.
     The smartest thing I ever heard a white man say about U.S. race relations was from Bill Bradley, the NBA star and U.S. senator: “If you haven’t talked to someone of a different race about race in the last 30 days, you are part of the problem.”
     That was in 1997. Bradley dropped out of the presidential race in 2000 because he didn’t want it badly enough. And who can blame him?
     I’m a white guy who likes talking about race with people of all races, so I thought I’d tell this story. I’ll tell you first that I think race is a fiction. People of all races can make babies who are “interracial” – whatever that means. So what is race, really?
     Historically, for white people, race in the United States, like religion, has functioned pretty much like membership in a country club – as a way to keep people out, and to strut around, on private grounds.
     Thirty years ago I was hired to teach English at Delano High School in California. Delano, 30 miles north of Bakersfield at the southern end of the Central Valley, was the home of Caesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers of America. Chavez chose Delano to organize because grapes, unlike most crops, require year-round care. So grape workers can stay put.
     John Gregory Dunne – Joan Didion’s husband – told the story of Delano well in his 1967 book: “Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike.”
     Because grape workers can stay put, and because the UFW won them some basic labor rights, farmworkers in Delano could settle down, and did. That changed the racial makeup of the town rather quickly, from predominantly white to predominantly Latino and Filipino.
     On my first day at the high school, a fellow teacher walked briskly into my room and said, “Are you with us or them?”
     I had never seen him before. I didn’t know his name. I had no idea what he was talking about. He got pretty hostile pretty quickly when I declined to take a side on something I didn’t know anything about.
     Turns out that a lot of oldtime Delanons, the white folks, were used to running things, and some members of the teachers union wanted the Latino and Filipino teachers to have more say in union matters. So there was a bit of a war being waged in the local union.
     I can understand that. What I cannot understand is why someone would demand that I pick a side, that I line up with a team, before I even knew there were teams, or what the game was about.
     To top it off, that year Delano High School got its first black principal ever. Boy, did the old guard have it in for him – from Day One. I liked the guy. I thought he was a good principal. It was my ninth, and last, year as a teacher in public high schools, and I’d worked for a lot of principals worse than him.
     Change may hurt at times. But what hurts a lot more is resistance to change.
     And, let’s face it, everything changes. Even rocks change.
     We need to face the fact that racial relations in this country have been miserable for centuries. They’re better than they used to be, but they’re still pretty bad. They’re not going to improve by forcing people to take sides. They’re not going to improve by pretending that there are just two sides.
     They will improve only if people do what Bill Bradley suggested. Without hollering. Without picking a team. Just doing what Americans have always done – shooting the breeze with neighbors over the back fence. Or even in the front yard.

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