17: Being Black in a White World

17: Being Black in a White World

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: My Kind (of) America

Being Black in a White World

It is never too late to give up your prejudices.

~Henry David Thoreau

As a white kid growing up on the lower west side of Detroit, Michigan, in the 1940s, I never experienced any prejudice or discrimination. Most of the people in the community were white and Jewish.

Although I didn’t experience religious or racial bigotry at this early age, I certainly did hear about it from my father. He was the only survivor from his family during the Holocaust. The Nazis exterminated his parents, seven siblings, and all his aunts, uncles, and cousins because they were Jews. At some point as a teenager, I told my father that I thought it was wrong to hate the new German babies being born.

His reaction was, “Today, a nice German baby, tomorrow a Nazi.”

He felt that hating Jews was ingrained in the German culture. I understood why he felt the way he did. Even so, I could never bring myself to feel the same way.

The first time I experienced racial discrimination, not for myself but for a co-worker, was in 1964 while I was working at Litton Industries, an aerospace company, in Canoga Park, California. There I met George Green, a twenty-eight-year-old, single, black male who was an electronics technician like me. One day, he told me how far he lived from work. At first, I thought maybe he had no choice but to live where he did. But when I pressed him about living closer, he told me he had tried to rent an apartment closer to work.

“What do you mean you ‘tried’?” I asked. “I’ve seen all kinds of vacancy signs close to work.”

“Benny,” he said, in surprise, “are you that naïve? I just accept it. I know this is the way it is. Maybe you haven’t noticed, but I’m as black as the ace of spades. I can’t prove it, but I know that’s the reason.”

My initial reaction was disbelief. “George, this isn’t Alabama or Mississippi.”

I told him he was overreacting and being overly sensitive. I explained to him that the State of California had recently passed a new law, which prohibited discrimination in housing because of race, color, religion, or national origin. It was called the Unruh Civil Rights Act, named after the Speaker of the California State Assembly, Jesse Unruh.

I then told him I had an idea. “George, this is what we are going to do. At lunchtime, we are going to take a ride down Ventura Boulevard. The first sign we see that says ‘For Rent,’ I will go and see if they have already rented the apartment. If not, I will leave, and you will go and try to rent the same apartment.”

“Whatever you say, Benny.”

The following day, we drove in my Volkswagen to an apartment complex on Ventura Boulevard, not far from where we worked, that had a vacancy sign on the front lawn. I went first while George sat and waited in the car. I was dressed casually. The manager showed me the bachelor’s apartment and said that it was available. She said all that was required was the first and last month’s rent. I thanked her and left.

I walked back to the car where George was waiting nervously. I told him exactly what I asked for, a bachelor’s apartment, and how much the monthly rent would be. We waited for a few minutes while watching to make sure that no one else entered the building. George, who was wearing a sports jacket, white shirt and tie, certainly looked presentable enough. I sat in the car and watched George knock on the manager’s door. Within a couple of minutes, I saw George walking back to the car.

He got in and just stared out the window.

“What happened?” I asked.

“I told you what would happen,” he replied. “She said, plain and simple, there were no vacancies.”

I couldn’t believe it. I sat there for a while and decided to go back and check it out again. The manager easily recognized me and asked if I had decided to rent the apartment. I told her I had changed my mind and wanted to rent the one-bedroom apartment. Once again, she showed me the apartment and said it was available. I thanked her and left.

George and I repeated our efforts three more times at different apartment complexes. When they didn’t have exactly what we asked for, we asked if we could leave our names and phone numbers. They always took my name and phone number, but they never took George’s name and phone number. I had seen and heard enough to convince me that there was something drastically wrong. At this point, I told George he had to get in touch with the Fair Housing Commission and register a complaint. Within two weeks, George heard from the FHC and was told to try again.

I was so happy for George.

But instead of being happy, George was now full of anxiety.

“Benny, now I’m not sure if I want to follow through.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know if I want to live around people who hate me.”

“I understand, but now it’s your choice. Just remember this. Once people get to know each other, this whole racial thing will go away. It’s all about the fear of the unknown.”

The following day, George courageously found an apartment on Ventura Boulevard about three blocks from work.

A few months later in March 1965, George and I were discussing race once again. I casually mentioned that we didn’t have any areas in Los Angeles that were all black.

“Have you ever heard of Watts?” George asked.

“What’s Watts?”

“It’s an entire community in Los Angeles that is all Negro.”

“You have to be kidding, George. How would I not know that?”

“That’s because you live in a bubble.”

When I got home that evening, I told my wife that on Sunday the two of us and our two small children were going to take a leisurely ride to Watts.

As we drove through the neighborhood of Watts, around 101st Street and Central Avenue, it became obvious that everyone we saw outside was black.

Then I heard my wife say, “ROLL UP THE WINDOWS!”

“WHAT?” I screamed. “Why would I want to do that?”

“I’m scared,” she declared.

“Why are you scared?”

“I’ve never met a Negro before.”

“Well, you are about to meet one. I’ve invited George Green from work over for dinner.”

I felt that, together, George and I had made some small progress toward breaking the barriers of prejudice and discrimination in our country.

Our country may not be perfect, but it does get better all the time.

~Benny Wasserman

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