Editor’s Note: This column is the start of what Freeline Media Orlando hopes will be a long-running dialogue on the nature of bigotry today. In this first column, Freeline Media’s editor, Mike Freeman, reflects on his introduction to bigotry while growing up in Massachusetts in the 1970s.
When I was growing up in a blue collar city, Fall River, in southeastern Massachusetts, my first brush with bigotry came in my middle schools years, when I overheard two other students whispering about me – and not, I could tell, in a complimentary way.
A couple of words came through: “Jew Boy” was one of them. “Heeb” was another. I could see their snickering. I could sense, in the weeks to come, the distancing I got from them.
In subsequent years, I had fellow students who were less subtle about all this. In a city that was heavily Catholic, it turned out that anti-Semitism would be my first brush with the feeling of alienation at being different, and my first encounter with being told that different is always bad.
And the irony about all this, as I reflect back on it, is something my fellow students never quite understood – or believed, when I pointed it out to them.
Namely, that I’m not Jewish.
It’s strange to look back now, as the son of a Protestant father and a mother from a Catholic family who was given no religious upbringing whatsoever, and remember being a victim of anti-semitisim. Well, no one ever said bigots were intelligent.
In the many years I lived in Fall River, I saw other examples of bigotry – namely, racism and xenophobia, to used the dictionary terms. After I relocated to Orlando in 2002, I witnessed other forms of bigotry, including racism, xenophobia, and homophobia – though no clear examples of anti-Semitism. It’s odd which forms of bigotry take root in different places.
One of the things I’ve learned over the years, though, is the surprisingly complex nature of bigotry – which I would define in this case as labeling an entire group as being different in a negative way, stereotyping anyone who fits into that category as exhibiting bad behavior or characteristics, and viewing them as being undesirables in your neighborhood. But there are very different forms of bigotry.
During my tenure as a news reporter for Fall River’s daily newspaper, I can remember an incident in the small neighboring town of Swansea. The Massachusetts government wanted to build a housing complex in Swansea designated for low-income families, in a state where the cost of housing was skyrocketing. The state wanted to close some of the worst housing projects in Boston, and relocate some of the residents to Swansea.
In this heavily white town, the residents were up in arms against it. Their reasoning: that the vast majority of the people who would be moving here would be black.
I heard similar arguments while working for The Reporter newspaper in Haines City, where I covered the community of Poinciana, which was experiencing a population boom – including a very fast rising number of new Puerto Rican residents. I got a lot of calls from older, longtime white residents of Poinciana who didn’t like the changes going on in their neighborhood.
What’s most interesting about the white residents of both Swansea and Poinciana is that while making fairly similar arguments, none of them considered themselves bigots or racists. In their view, they were good people, hard working, honest, who didn’t want their neighborhood brought down by the wrong element. The residents of Swansea worried about black teenagers committing crimes, or drugs being sold in the neighborhood. The Poinciana folks insisted their new Puerto Rican neighbors weren’t very friendly, stuck to themselves, played loud music, and didn’t take care of their property. It’s not that they’re bigots, they would tell me – they just don’t want the wrong types moving in and ruining their neighborhood.
In a sense, they felt, they were the real victims. Everything had been going so well in their neighborhood – everyone got along, neighbors looked after one another … and then things started to change when a “different” group started moving in.
This kind of attitude isn’t limited to people of a different race, of course. I’ve known white people who cringe at the idea of supposedly low-class, “poor white trash” types moving onto their block – which is usually why they pick neighborhoods where those folks couldn’t afford to get in. On the other hand, I’ve never seen an instance where a middle class black family complained about a lower class of blacks moving in. It seems like in their minds, they’re all in this together as one race, regardless of their economic status. Whites don’t think in the same way.
Likewise, a few months ago, I was driving down Semoran Boulevard with a friend of mine. She glanced around, then asked, a bit cryptically, “What kind of neighborhood is this?”
I knew exactly what she was talking about. “This is a very strong Latino neighborhood,” I said.
“What kind of Latino?” she asked.
Puerto Rican, I said, to my friend who is 22 and from a Puerto Rican family.
“That’s what I thought,” she said, then added that she would never want to live there. Her reason: she didn’t want to be around “those kind” of Puerto Ricans – again, income dividing the good from the bad.
Don’t let anyone who might bring down those property values get in, is the view. That may be why I know white people in middle class neighborhoods who like to tell me that they have no problem with the black lawyer or the Hispanic doctor living on the block.
The anti-Semitism I experienced was of an entirely different variety. It wasn’t about a fear of crumbling neighborhood values. No one ever told me that having a Jew in the neighborhood meant their values went down. Almost always, it was about something else: resentment. Jealousy.
I was asked many times if my dad was a banker (an engineer, actually). They assumed I lived in one of the city’s best neighborhoods (actually, yes). They would ask if my family had money (well, we were middle class). The implication: Jews are smart, rich, and look down their noses at those struggling blue collar folks. By assuming I was a Jew, they were assuming I was an elitist, a snob. It was a radically different form of bigotry than what they said about the tiny handful of blacks who lived in the city, or the much larger number of immigrants, mainly Portuguese immigrants from the Azores, who came to the city in such big numbers. “Those” people were poor and low class. Jews were snobby bankers who knew how to con people. With a dad who provided for us nicely, I ended up getting labeled in the second category.
What’s always surprised me is that at age 47, I’ve never been a victim of the most obvious form of bigotry: homophobia. I make a lousy gay victim, having never been called a fag, never been roughed up for being gay, never been fired from my job or denied an apartment – nothing. Zip.
I have been told that people are “surprised” that I’m gay because I don’t “act” gay – but more often than not people I barely know love to make a point of telling me that they could care less about people’s sexual orientation.
I have gay friends who have horror stories to tell me. I have memories of people hugging me and telling me it doesn’t make a difference to them once they found out. I’m not sure why I got lucky in this way. So my “Official Victim” card got tossed in a drawer ages ago.
I didn’t see much of anything in the way of anti-gays attitudes growing up in Fall River; the city even had an openly gay congressman, Barney Frank. Living in Orlando and working in Polk County, a very conservative county, I’ve similarly managed to avoid a single ugly incident in my nine years in the state. My partner and I have bought cars together in Orlando and Leesburg, been asked what our relationship is, and responded “domestic partners” without batting an eyelash from the salesman.
But I have seen some interesting examples of people who do have problems with gays, and their attitudes are similar to the ones who complain about low-income Puerto Ricans moving in. They’re the real victims here.
Typically, they tend to be older, and religious. They were brought up to believe homosexuality is a sin, it’s right there in the Bible, and everyone used to accept that. But now they see cities passing anti-discrimination ordinances for gays. They see funny gay characters on television. They see major political figures and celebrities endoring gay marriage. They see movies like “Brokeback Mountain” and “Milk” winning awards. They see churches welcoming in gay parishioners and even gay ministers. They see businesses offering domestic partner plans to entice gay workers. And they feel like their values are being rejected, mocked, discarded.
I always want to remind them that there’s no constitutional guarantee that your neighbors will agree with everything you believe; mostly I just leave it alone.
I thought about all this a year ago, when Republican U.S. Senate candidate Rand Paul, who ended up winning the seat in Kentucky, said in a televsion interview that a limited government shouldn’t force private businesses to abide by civil rights law.
It created a firestorm, with allegations that Paul, a Libertarian-minded conservative in favor of limiting the reach of government, wanted blacks, Hispanics, woman and gays tossed out of their jobs, kicked out of their apartments, and left to starve in the streets. Paul ended up issuing a statement saying he abhors discrimination and wouldn’t repeal the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
“Let me be clear: I support the Civil Rights Act because I overwhelmingly agree with the intent of the legislation, which was to stop discrimination in the public sphere and halt the abhorrent practice of segregation and Jim Crow laws,” he said.
What’s most interesting to me is that we had an opportunity to have a frank discussion on whether or not we still need civil rights laws – laws that target very specific groups and protect them. The argument against Paul’s comments, obviously, are that if we did away with those laws, discrimination would result on a mass scale.
But would it?
Having these laws on the books ignores the hundreds of thousands of white, straight, Christian employers who hire blacks, Jews, gays and Latinos every day, assuming they’re qualified for the job.
Or to put it another way: in the 1990s, the city council in Cincinnati, Ohio voted to ban discrimination against gays and lesbians. Opponents put it on the ballot, and the ordinance was repealed.
Then a group of supporters of the ordinance began pushing to get it reinstated. Was it gays? No. Liberals? Nope.
It was the local business community, which was worried that not having the law on the books would give the city the wrong image, one of intolerance that would scare off people who did believe in fairness for gays. They sponsored a second ballot amendment, asking voters to reinstate the law, and this time it worked. Voters agreed to put the anti-gay discrimination law back on the books.
So if the business community is fighting for the law, it means local companies won’t discriminate against gays. And if the residents of Cincinnati like the law, it means they want a city that doesn’t discriminate.
So if all that is true, why does the city need a gay rights ordinance to being with?
We have no idea what our society would be like without civil rights laws, because we cling to the notion that so many of us are hostile to certain groups that we need the government to protect us from the worst bigotries of our neighbors.
But as the non-Jewish kid who got picked on by anti-Semites who thought I was above them, to the gay adult who never experienced a single hostile reaction to telling someone I was gay, I can’t help but think bigotry comes in radically different forms, and maybe we need a dialogue that recognizes that, and stops putting it into a one size fits all container.
It’s a debate we’ve never started. And as Mr. Paul’s experience showed, we’re too quick to silence anyone who suggests it’s a topic worthy of discussion.
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