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Crime & Justice

Let's talk about race. Is it fair to call Clay Russell a cracker?

Off-Ramp commentator Clay Russell
Off-Ramp commentator Clay Russell
John Rabe

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My husband and I were in downtown LA. An African-American man was on the cell phone in front of an apartment building. As we passed, I heard him say, "And now there's two crackers walking in front of my building." He saw my head jerk back, and he called out, "What, you don't like what you see?"

I hate this stuff.

There’s a lot of discussion right now about race in America, some of it calm and intellectual and some of it loud and vicious. Sometimes the discussion comes in the form of baseball bats smashing through car windows. But there’s no opportunity to talk to the people who could most enlighten me, or vice versa.

Sure, I could have stopped the other night and said to the man, “No, I don’t like what I hear.” But something told me that wouldn’t have been the time to expect civility. Being called a cracker didn’t hurt so much as it confounded me. “What did I ever do to you?”

Did he mean “cracker” in a derogatory way? I think he did. I also think that when the n-word is universally accepted as vile but is still used far too often, it’s natural to want to assign the same level of vitriol to a word you can use against those who hate you. But if that were the case, why would that man assume we hated him?

I’m not naïve enough to be truly confused about the anger. I’m a white man. I have it good – I get that. I’ve never been denied housing, a job or a promotion because of my race. As far as I know, no lady ever clutched her purse closer after seeing me board a subway. I’ve never been questioned by the police for no apparent reason.

People have shouted horrible things at me because they assumed I was gay, so there’s some overlap, but those moments have been rare.

Do I have my own prejudices? Sure I do. In 1980 in Houston, one man held a knife to my throat and another pointed a revolver at my temple while they went through my pockets. I had seen them cross the street but hadn’t worried as they walked behind me because one of the men was black and the other was white. The white man with the black man eased the nervousness I otherwise might have felt at dusk in a sketchy part of Houston.

Growing up in Houston in the 1960s, I saw and heard plenty of discrimination. But over and over my parents said, “Black people are just the same as us except for the color of their skin.” And I believed it. … So much so that when I grew up and began to hear about affirmative action – especially in the University of California-Bakke case of the late 70s – I was confused. “We’re all equal, yet they want special treatment?” It confused and bothered me.

But I had applied a far-too-simple strain of logic to the issue. I thought that if everybody just accepted the equality thing, the problem would be solved. It wasn’t until years later that I read President Johnson’s 1965 commencement address at Howard University. He said, ‘You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, "You are free to compete with all the others," and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.’

Still it’s reasonable to ask how much is enough. When is everyone on the starting line together? Where’s the checklist that we can wave over our heads, proclaiming, “We did it!” Those questions will be argued for a long time but my guess is that checklist won’t ever exist; it won’t be that easy. The damage has been too great.