The Convivial Call of Casual Racism
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because you can find allies in the darnedest places.
Against my better judgement, I let my girlfriend talk me into going out on the Fourth of July. We drove her ’99 Corolla up to her friend’s three-story Craftsman mansion, high in the Hollywood Hills, arriving just as darkness fell and a cannonade of illicit fireworks set the night sky aflame.
We walked through the wooded grounds, following Edison bulbs strung along a trail, then ascended the front stairs of the house. The door was unlocked. We made our way through a maze of rooms and then out to a sprawling veranda.
A party of six was lounging on four couches; a blond trophy wife, her entourage of undersexed girlfriends and the man of the house, who was roughly my age.
“The city sponsored carnivals where they’d play a horrifying game that was popular across the country at the time. It was called Hit the Nigger Baby.”
“My name is James L. Taylor,’”* the host said as he walked up to me and my girlfriend, “and you must be a Commie, right?”
I found his comment a little rude. And presumptuous.
“Why yes, I am!” I said. “Where’s the free beer? I heard there was going to be free beer.”
He shot me a strange look and let out a nervous laugh.
I rubbed my hands together greedily. “Man oh man, I love free stuff!”
My girlfriend and I followed him to the well-stocked bar. I desperately wanted to say something snarky about the American flag he was wearing as a cape, but I let it go and grabbed an IPA.
Later, after launching thousands of dollars worth of multi-effect aerial shells into the neighborhood airspace, we all settled back on the veranda for homemade pie, gourmet ice cream and some fancy-ass cocktails.
James L. Taylor had a book coming out on the history of Lincoln Heights, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Los Angeles, which is why my cultured girlfriend wanted me to come. She’s been trying to get me to meet other writers she knows. If it weren’t for the pandemic, I wouldn’t be so reluctant.
He asked me about the book I’m working on and I told him the gist of it. He made the predictable conservative knee-jerk defense of the police, downplaying their mishandling of my dad’s murder case. I then explained to him the long history of corruption in the San Francisco Police Department and how little has changed.
He shifted gears and started in on the Black Lives Matter movement, of all things. “They’ve had more than 150 years of freedom and they’re still complaining!”
“Funny you should bring that up,” I said. “I just uncovered some ugly racist history in my hometown, in the Bay Area, and people are having a hard time believing it happened there.”
“Oh, did they have Black and white drinking fountains?” he said dismissively.
“Worse than that. The city sponsored carnivals where they’d play a horrifying game that was popular across the country at the time. It was called Hit the Nigger Baby.”
“Never heard of it.”
“It was also called African Dodger or Hit the Coon. Black men or boys would stick their heads through a hole and then white men would throw baseballs, as hard as they could, at them. Some actually died from their injuries.”
“When was this, 100 years ago?” he responded.
“Nope, they were doing it into the 1940s in California and into the ’50s in other states.”
“And Black men volunteered?”
“They were probably persuaded by being paid a lot of money, at least more than they’d make at a menial job.”
“I don’t see the problem, then. No one was forcing them to participate.”
“There were white men throwing fastballs at Black men’s heads, trying to crack their skulls open, and you don’t see the problem? You don’t see how fucked up the dynamic was, how pervasive the racism was, that a man would feel so low and so worthless that he’d actually stick his head through a fucking hole for money?”
I should have stood up and walked out, but it felt good to confront one of these ignorant pricks in person rather than in the shadowy corners of the internet.
As the night continued, I corrected his erroneous beliefs about the African slave trade and dismantled the disinformation he’d absorbed on the founding of the KKK. He then switched to bragging about his early-American family history.
He mentioned a Confederate officer, which wasn’t surprising, and a distant cousin who arrived on the Mayflower in 1620, which might be impressive. To a butthead.
See, out of the Mayflower’s 102 passengers only 52 survived that first winter aboard the ship, so to be related to even one of them is pretty rare. When I told him that I am a direct descendant of 11 of the passengers, he thought I was bullshitting him.
I rattled off their names; William Brewster III and wife Mary, John and Priscilla Alden, William and Alice Mullins, John and Elizabeth Howland, John and Joan Tilley, and Thomas Rogers. Then I told him that another ancestor, the Rev. Ralph Wheelock, founded the first public school in the Colonies. And yet another ancestor, Moses Axtell, was a member of the Boston Tea Party.
“Wow, that is crazy, you’re actually American royalty!” he said. “You shouldn’t be ashamed of it!”
“Who’s ashamed of it?” I asked.
“You are. You’re a person who downplays the accomplishments of white people in history, your own history. Have you looked into joining any societies? I’m a Mason, and there are many other organizations out there that would love to have you.”
“There have been a few 33rd degree Masons in my family. As for societies, my family founded Skull and Bones at Yale. That’s all Old World shit that I’ve got no use for, especially not if it’s going to be glorified as examples of white supremacy.”
“Man, you are so lost.”
“I beg to differ,” I said. “I’m sure I can find my way home.”
* Name changed to protect the guilty.