When I was growing up in Western Massachusetts some thirty years ago, there were two main racial groups in town: the Italians and the Puerto Ricans. Now, I can’t tell you what or even if the Puerto Ricans thought about the Italians, but I do know that the Italians, at least the ones I knew, hated the Puerto Ricans. You even pronounced it differently, as if it were a swear word: PortaRican.
Now, my mom was American-born and didn’t speak Italian, but her grandparents had come from the old country around the turn of the century and that was sufficient to qualify us to be at home among the Italians, so quite naturally we lived in the Italian neighborhood. With my second-generation Italian friends I celebrated the Italian holidays, worshipped Sylvester Stallone, the Italian Stallion, and tried to pick up the art of swearing in Italian from the native speakers. But I never could figure out why I was supposed to hate the Puerto Ricans. I mean, it sounded really stupid. Both groups seemed to me only slightly different shades of white, and among the older generation, both spoke equally incomprehensible foreign languages.
“It’s because they’re so poor,” my friends would sniff. “Look at where they live.”
I did. I didn’t have to look hard; their neighborhood was directly across the street from ours.
“They shop at Kmart,” they sneered. Back then this was the refuge of the very lowest classes. You did not want to be seen walking into or out of a Kmart. But we knew that they shopped there because we often saw them in the aisles when we were trying to pick out our shoes and shirts for school.
When I moved away from Springfield and met other Italians it became clear that Italians in general had no particular grudge against Puerto Ricans; indeed, in most parts of the country neither group is numerous or dominant enough for racial conflicts even to exist. And that’s when it finally started to make sense to me. The Italians of my old neighborhood didn’t hate the Puerto Ricans because of how they lived or because of anything specific they had done. They were simply the other big tribe in town. Natural enemies, if you will. And very likely the Puerto Ricans were equally unfond and distrustful of their Italian neighbors.
To my mind, racism, like many other isms, is inherently flawed in concept and therefore doomed to eventual failure. It may have been sustainable as long as the whites stayed in Europe and the Asians in Asia and the blacks in Africa and the Latinos in Latin America, but today’s society is so incredibly integrated that this simply can’t be the case anymore. As much as you can’t talk people out of their convictions, you also can’t talk them out of their sexual desires, and as long as people of one color continue to think that people of other colors are hot, there are going to be interracial babies who will, in turn, make more interracial babies. And at some point it becomes ludicrous, trying to carry a prejudice against people who are the same color as your grandkid or your best friend’s live-in boyfriend or you after a summer in the sun or a winter without it.
It’s difficult to detest groups that are so ill-defined. It’s even tougher to feel threatened by an ethnic population that doesn’t outnumber you and that has no more power than your own. I mean, who in the U.S. really hates the Irish anymore? When was the last time you saw a fistfight break out between an Episcopalian and a Presbyterian? It is both the burden and the beauty of cultural diversity. Many reasons to hate other kinds of people and many more reasons not to.
So the real question is, when racism at last draws to its timely end, will that mean universal peace and cooperation? Will we enjoy a Golden Age in which all peoples are appreciated and respected, in which cultures of every kind live in utopian harmony?
I doubt it. Because if the Italians of Springfield could find reasons to hate the Puerto Ricans, then people everywhere are always going to be able to find some irrational reason to despise their neighbors. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the hate crime of the future involved sports fans being beaten to death for supporting the wrong team. Or gang warfare between those who like country music and those who like hip-hop.
It will still be an improvement. If we’re going to hate people for no good reason, at least it ought to be for a cause that’s under their control. Much more fair than holding them accountable for some characteristic that was passed down to them before they were even born.