In one of his better bits, Lenny Bruce imagines a prison movie with a Black guy on death row: “Fried chicken and watermelon,” the guy sings, “fried chicken and watermelon. Well, boss, you don’t mind dyin’ if you’ve got a natural sense of rhythm.”
In the 1960s I learned a lot from comedians about how ludicrous racism was. Then came Richard Pryor. In one of his lighter moments he reported being stopped by a cop: “I. Am Reaching. Into. My. Pocket. For. My License.” Pryor’s standup routines were often a lot more obscene and stinging. Then came Dave Chappelle and others who went on from there.
Comedy turns the light on racism, but it’s never enough. The laughter diffuses any guilt or shame on the part of the audience. You can laugh when the comic says “nigger” because you’d never use that term. It’s easy to recognize racism if it’s not your own. But if it’s your own, it’s often hidden beneath the cultural veneer that covers all of us.
Recent events have burst the bubble that liberals are somehow exempt, that they’ve beaten the rap. I grew up in one of those liberal environments where mild racism was tolerated if not approved. As a high school kid I worked summers in a Shell service station in Wilmette, Illinois, with a big jovial Black man named George. At lunchtime we’d sit in his old Packard where he kept a pint of Southern Comfort in the glove compartment. And we’d have a tot.
At home my parents lived in something approaching the grand manner. We had three resident, live-in domestics, none of whom were Black. And yet in 1950 mom and dad threw a blowout party featuring Louis Armstrong’s band. This, to be sure, was entertainment, not atonement. George would have been welcome but not as a guest.
In my college years and later I became a diehard jazz fan, soon to meet and form friendships with Black musicians, later to write about them as a critic and reviewer. Some, like Charles Mingus and Thad Jones, became good friends. The relationship was reciprocal: I wrote about them; they taught me about music and Black culture. We had a connection.
For a time I got to thinking about jazz in a Crow-Jim way—that only Blacks could access and play the authentic music. Well, that’s not true, of course, and the idea was an outgrowth of racism. But by living and working in New York in the 1960s it was easy to think you had escaped the curse of racism.
We’ve learned recently that no one escapes that curse. In the 1968 election I voted for Dick Gregory and felt virtuous about it. But no one is beyond the curse. The Washington Post just told us that John Muir, the environmental icon and founder of the Sierra Club, was a straight-up racist. Colin Kaepernick—the great quarterback who lost his career by taking the knee against police brutality—has been rejected by all the NFL teams who refused to sign him. It would have been “bad for business.”
Racism is so embedded in our society that it’s always been part of how America does business. The story of Fred Trump and his exclusion of Black renters is hardly unique. I’ve come to think that racism is part and parcel of that other American characteristic, exceptionalism. The common notion that America is in many ways superior to other nations and peoples is still widespread, and not just among Trump supporters. It’s only one step from exceptionalism to chauvinism. And, unless the protests can take hold, that’s where we are today. Still, it’s pretty clear that the American century is over.
Maybe our recent turmoils and protests are a hopeful sign. But I’m too old to march, and my contacts with Black people are now limited by where I live. Mexico offers its own homegrown varieties of racism and prejudice. It sometimes makes you think these attitudes are irreversible and built in to every culture.