Lessons at the Bookstore on July 4th Weekend

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

Editors’ note: A great holiday read and a superb dose of reality!!

 

How scholarship has given way to polemics that divide the nation

Scene:  A Barnes & Noble bookstore in Tucson, Arizona. Just inside the door are display tables of featured books and best-sellers.  They reveal how scholarship has given way to polemics that divide the nation. 

Many books on the tables have the theme that Republicans are right-wing extremists and white supremacists who hate brown people, black people, gay people, transsexual people, disabled people, poor people, and children.

In lesser numbers, other books have the theme that Democrats hate industriousness, accomplishment, wealth, capitalism, the United States, white people, and themselves.

Other polemics masquerading as serious history have the theme that the United States has been evil since its founding, has no redeeming qualities, and should be replaced by some other political and economic system.

The new genre of racism and white fragility abounds. Books in this genre tend to lack in scholarship and have themes that are already shopworn, including the theme that whites are racist by nature, that America’s institutions are racist because they were established by whites, that people of color are saintly and thus incapable of racism, and that the United States would become a true shining city on a hill if non-whites replaced whites in positions of power.  

The genre is silent about what happened to Detroit under convicted Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, or to New Orleans under convicted Mayor Ray Nagin, or to scores of African nations that became ethnic slaughterhouses under black rule. What happened is what has happened when crooked and despotic whites have ruled.

It is also silent about a lesson of history about diversity:  that in spite of its pluses, a negative is that the more ethnic and racial diversity in a nation, the less social cohesion. The United States is one of the most diverse nations in the world.

Scattered about the bookstore are display tables dedicated to the struggles of so-called victim groups, such as the injustices suffered by gays, lesbians and women. No table is dedicated to the unfairness of men being mangled, crushed and asphyxiated in mines and factories in far greater numbers than women. Nor is there a table dedicated to the injustices suffered by my affinity group of Italians or any of the hundreds of other ethnocultural groups that have faced discrimination or worse but haven’t been designated a minority group or people of color by whomever decides such matters.

Then, in the category of cluelessness, are the books that question why the nation has become so divided. The authors have apparently never browsed the featured books in a bookstore.

After glancing at the featured books, I quickly head upstairs to the history section. Along the way I walk by the large self-help section without stopping, because I know that I’m beyond help. The same for the section on finding oneself. I gave up on that long ago.

The history section seems overwhelming, given its large number of books. But my proven process of elimination reduces the choices by fifty percent or more.  The process entails eliminating from consideration any book with a political agenda, any book written by a closeminded ideologue, any book with glowing reviews from only the left or only the right, or any book that is not scholarly and impartial.

Applying that process to the featured books downstairs at the entrance would eliminate almost all of them.

One book in the history section passes muster and brings back a flood of memories: The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, by William Shirer.  

It brings me back to eighth grade in parochial school, when the nuns played a film of scenes from newsreels of the concentration camps being liberated, showing the stacks of emaciated bodies, the ashes in the crematorium, the piles of spectacles, the lampshades made of human skin, and dazed, near-death inmates being helped by well-fed American soldiers.  

The film profoundly affected me and set me on an intellectual journey to understand how humans could inflict such atrocities on other humans.   

That coincided with the publication of the paperback edition of Shirer’s book, which I bought and read over one summer in high school—all 1,599 pages. It was in addition to the five classics in literature that I had to read over each summer and be tested on when school reconvened in the fall.  

Somehow, my working-class parents had come up with the money to enroll me in one of the best Catholic college prep schools in metro St. Louis, a school where four years of math and Latin were mandatory, along with the required reading each summer. The school was a 40-minute bus ride away from my hood and even farther away in terms of social class. I was one of only two Italians in the freshman class and one of only a handful of kids whose parents were not lawyers, physicians, industrialists, or business executives.  The students of driving age drove much nicer cars than my family’s old Dodge with the rusted-out floorboard.

The all-boys school had the motto, Esto Vir, or Be a Man. It meant the opposite of machismo. It meant the aspirational goals of being learned, moral, humanist, mannered, community-minded, and physically fit—goals that I still have difficulty achieving. Imagine the uproar today if a public school wanted a similar motto for its male students. First, there would be endless debates on what constitutes a male, and, second, the values would be criticized as white values.  

I was a minority among the Anglo-Saxon majority in the student body, but, like my parents and immigrant grandparents, a minority that did not resent the wealth and station of those above me. To the contrary, I wanted to be successful like them, but without forsaking my roots and becoming snobbish. Achieving that goal, I realized, would require a college degree, a realization that probably wouldn’t have come to me if I had gone to public high school in my hood.

Despite our class differences, the Anglo-Saxon students and I had something in common: golf. Many of them played golf at their parents’ country club, and I would work two summers as the only white on an otherwise all-black janitorial staff at an exclusive country club that was so exclusive that it excluded blacks, Italians and Jews from membership. I would go on to work during high school and then college as a factory laborer, a union painter, a sewer inspector, a bartender, and a supermarket stocker and checker. My student debt? Zero.

One would have to be brain-dead in the America of the 1960s not to be woke about the plight of blacks. After all, this was the time of the turmoil of the Civil Rights movement (and the Vietnam War), when whites did much more than virtue signal about race, such as risking their lives by facing Bull Connor in Birmingham and other racist goons elsewhere.  

A side note: Not to virtue-signal, but after getting two college degrees and serving as an Army officer in an institution that has gotten integration right, I entered the corporate world, where I was at the leading edge of equal rights, affirmative action, and the original idea of diversity before it became corrupted by race hustlers.

One would have to be blind and ignorant of history in the St. Louis of my youth not to be woke back then about the plight of blacks.  Examples of the plight abounded, including poverty, discrimination, crime-infested slums and the notorious public housing project of Pruitt-Igoe, which began as a noble experiment in multiculturalism and high standards of behavior but would later be torn down after the government had let it fall into disrepair and into the control of thugs. 

The flight of whites and middle-class blacks to the suburbs turned into a torrent in the fifties and sixties, so that the City of St. Louis, which, at the beginning of the 20th century was the fourth-largest city in America, would shrink to its present population of 300,000, which is only ten percent of the population of the metro St. Louis area, a metropolis with a vibrant, highly diversified economy.

St. Louis also offered a lesson in redlining, but a more complicated lesson than is taught today. Take the redlining practiced by the Italian community of my roots, which was known as Dago Hill, because it sat on a hill and because the ethnic slur was in vogue back then.

Centered on a Catholic church and school, the Hill was a close-knit community of shared culture, customs, and cuisine. The tiny homes and yards were kept in pristine condition, with even the alleys being swept by homeowners Residents and realtors made sure that houses were not sold to non-Italians, whatever their ethnicity and race.  

Discriminatory? Of course. Understandable? Absolutely! 

It was understandable because Italian immigrants hadn’t been welcomed in neighborhoods populated by the Anglo-Saxon establishment, so like other ethnic groups, they formed their own communities.

Now for the controversial part: The black ghetto was fast-approaching on two sides of the Hill and quickly turning formerly nice housing, parks and schools—the St. Louis of tree-lined streets glamorized in the musical “Meet Me in St. Louis—into concentrations of poverty, crime, broken families, and despair. Italians made a racial calculus that they would lose their community and see the value of their homes plummet if the advance of the ghetto wasn’t stopped at the invisible border of their neighborhood. 

This was not a racist calculus that blacks were genetically inferior or predisposed by nature to destructive behavior.  If anything, as I saw firsthand, Italians empathized with the black experience and understood what had led to their second-class citizenship. That was certainly true for my immigrant fraternal grandfather, who worked as a coal miner alongside blacks in the coal mines of southern Illinois before moving to St. Louis.  

Italians on the Hill simply didn’t have the luxury of intellectualizing about the evils of redlining, unlike intellectuals who lived in leafy enclaves safely removed from the inner-city.    

Long before the advent of Critical Race Theory, one didn’t need to be an intellectual to understand that if it had not been for the horrors of slavery, all of the injustices that followed wouldn’t have happened. It was also understood by common folk in the 1960s that certain aspects of the Great Society and War on Poverty, despite the positives of the initiatives, hindered black progress.  Most notorious in this regard were welfare policies that penalized families if a father lived in the household. 

Equally damaging were housing policies that either concentrated blacks (and the poor of other races) in public housing or gave them Section 8 vouchers to live in homes owned by others. It would have been considerably better for the government to teach them the skills to rehabilitate rundown houses, give them the necessary tools and materials, and award them with the title to a property if they succeeded. Perhaps that’s a pipe dream, but if it had been tried and worked, it would have left them with capital, skills, and independence, and might have stopped cities like St. Louis from becoming hollowed out.

Instead, the voucher program was later modified to make it easier for the poor to live in nice suburbs to get away from bad schools and crime. It’s largely an unreported story, but this hasn’t worked out so well, because counterproductive behaviors stemming from dependency and broken families have often continued in the suburbs. 

 St. Louis is an ideal place to learn other lessons about the history of race in America.               

The city was where the infamous Dred Scott case had its origin, in a state that became a slave state due to the Missouri Compromise.  Slavery had existed just a few miles to the south of this most southern of northern cities, as exemplified by Grant’s Farm, which is now in the middle of suburbia and is a national park. The farm is where anti-slavery Ulysses S. Grant had lived in considerable acrimony with his slave-holding in-laws, the Dents.  

Just 98 miles to the northeast is Springfield, Illinois, where my grade school would take students on field trips to see Lincoln’s tomb and house. And 158 miles upriver is Nauvoo, Illinois, which is the site of a different kind of discrimination: the persecution of Mormons and the killing of Joseph Smith.

Of course, the Mississippi River was the setting for The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, two novels that have been banned by some school districts but books that I loved as a kid and that would lead me to read books on the black experience, such as Uncle Tom’s Cabin, The Invisible Man, and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Five cultures met at or near St. Louis:  French, British, Spanish, American, and Native American. The French influence can be seen in the architecture and street and town names in St. Louis and environs, the British and American influence in the political and economic systems, the Spanish influence at the northern terminus of the Spanish Empire in the river town of New Madrid (Nueva Madrid), and the Native-American influence most notably at Cahokia Mounds across the river from St. Louis, where the Cahokia tribe had built a city (c. 1050-1350 CE) that covered six square miles and is a World Heritage Site. It is considered to be the largest and most complex pre-Columbian archaeological site north of the great pre-Columbian cities in Mexico.

At some point in their history, all of these cultures had engaged in slavery, warfare, and by today’s moral standards, unspeakable atrocities—as has been the case for virtually every culture in history. Naturally, those with the most advanced weapons, communications, and organization were able to inflict the most carnage and subjugate others, resulting in resentments that linger today.  

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