Dispatches from the Go-Slow Zone
[Editor’s Note: This is just one of thirteen essays in our collection of first-hand reports about the reality of race, Face to Face with Race.]
It’s a safe bet that for many whites, exposure to blacks and Hispanics comes in controlled doses. Their positive attitudes toward “diversity” are shaped by isolated experiences with small handfuls of non-whites, often in majority-white settings. Until some years ago, my own life followed this pattern. I was a “colorblind conservative” and liked Newt Gingrich and Jack Kemp. Although I was beginning to lose my illusions, I thought all we needed to fix the race problem were free markets and “better values.”
That was about to change. After law school, I accepted a job with the civil division of a major metropolitan area’s legal office, which defends the city against lawsuits. If you were hit by a police car, for example, and decided to sue, we handled the case. Incoming lawyers were assigned to various locations around the city, and I landed in the least-white part of town—29 percent and falling.
There were mutterings about past lawyers who had refused this assignment for “safety” reasons, but I thought of it as a gritty, world-expanding adventure. Like a British explorer, I would venture out where others feared. How bad could it be?
The subway ride to the office was one clue. As the train rolled away from the center of the city each morning, I was often the sole remaining white on an otherwise packed car. On more than one occasion, I sat frozen in my seat while a nearby black yelled things like “I’m-a kill-a white motha******!” The outbursts were probably aimed at me, but sometimes I wasn’t sure. Blacks who did not appear to have noticed me would sometimes mutter about killing white people.
One time in the subway, I watched as a full-grown black man wearing little more than a diaper and Nike flip-flops lit a crack pipe, introducing me to the sweetish smell of crack cocaine. The smoke was intense and acrid, and I was not alone in thinking him obviously unhinged and probably dangerous. Even the blacks went scurrying. “Dat fool be smokin’ crack, y’all!” someone yelled.
Another time, at about 8 o’clock in the morning, I watched a Hispanic woman slap her children as she sipped from an aluminum can in a brown paper bag. I was close enough to smell beer, and narrowed my eyes in disapproval. “Who da f*** are you, da police?” she shouted. I’m not sure it would have made any difference if I had been.
The walk from the station to the office could be just as harrowing. Chicken bones, the occasional used condom, and even used diapers littered the sidewalks. Sheltered areas stank of urine. Rap music blared from cars stopped at intersections. The rap was sometimes out-blasted by salsa and merengue music from Hispanics, who drove cars with impossibly large sound systems better suited to concert halls. To escape the din and reclaim a corner of civilization, I listened to Bach on my Walkman.
One would think a law office could seal out much of this, but it crept in, like jungle vines enveloping an abandoned building. The “support staff,” as they were called, were overwhelmingly black and Hispanic. Outside my office sat a black Haitian woman who spoke almost no English and would communicate in incomprehensible baby-like cries and moans. She was ostensibly in charge of office supplies, but rarely attended to her job. If you asked about the possibility of new pens, for example, she would say, “Nooooo. You no do dat. I yeah, see. Uh uh. Do dee.” I began buying my own supplies.
The noise was insufferable. Desktop radios in the office would blare syrupy R&B. The sound of sirens and car alarms outside never seemed to stop. Staffers would yell and chase each other like kindergartners on the playground. It was mostly in fun, but it was constant and loud and something I cannot imagine white people doing in an office.
Drinking was a favorite office activity. One support staffer, a black African I’ll call “Zeus,” drenched himself with cologne but could not hide the reek of alcohol. This fellow was legendary for avoiding work and acting bizarrely. Zeus wandered into my office one day with his shirt unbuttoned almost to his waist and smelling particularly vodka-soaked. The conversation began civilly, but as it wore on he became upset that I was, for some undetermined reason, not “respecting” him. He grew agitated and though he was small, I thought he might attack me.
Zeus, who was from someplace in Africa—I can’t remember which country, exactly—sometimes made clicking noises when he talked, reminding me of Africans in National Geographic documentaries who speak with mouth-clicks. He had been warned about “inappropriate” behavior toward women—though I never heard the specifics—and I believe one woman lawyer had asked that Zeus never be allowed in her office.
At the front desk sat a young Hispanic man who dressed in sleeveless T-shirts, sweatpants, and immaculate white athletic shoes. He loudly boasted, as I stood nearby, of “beating those freakin’ white boys” at handball. I wondered what would happen if a white staffer boasted of “beating those freakin’ brown boys.”
Once, as I stood at the copy machine, he approached me from behind and said, “Yo yo, hurry up.” When I turned to look at him he continued, “Yeah, you heard me. Dat’s how it is, yo.” Yes, Hispanics say “yo.” This is common in the crossover world of big-city non-whites, though not all Hispanics talked like blacks—only the ones who were trying to be “gangsta.” This man was probably expressing a kind of pan-minority solidarity: “Yo, I’m brown and I’m down. I know what blacks have to deal with, and I know who the enemy is.” It would not have been a good idea to try to teach him better manners.
People who were, themselves, rude could demand punctilious manners in others. Once, an older black woman punched me in the back after I brushed past her. I’m normally the type who says “Excuse me,” but her reaction came before I could say a word. She obviously saw me as a snobby white man who must be shown his place: “Cain’t you say ‘scuse me?”
One female Hispanic staffer, whom I understood to be Puerto Rican, almost never did any work. “Petunia” was unbearably loud, and would chatter in Spanish all day with other staffers. “Mira! Mira!” (Look!, or Hey!) was her constant cry, and she had alcohol on her breath. There were rumors of daytime hard drug use, and I could believe them.
Dress in the office was aggressively casual. Memos would occasionally go out telling the staff not to wear “do-rags,” but after a short period of reform, they’d be back, along with “African pride” T-shirts. One staffer assigned to the front desk wore Nation of Islam or black nationalist-style get-ups, including combat boots and the distinctive short-brimmed cap. One Hispanic regularly wore tank-top shirts.
As is common in many offices, staffers often called in sick, but this was particularly frequent for blacks and Hispanics. They also cut days short, despite efforts to make sure they didn’t. At the front door there was an electronic palm reader. This sophisticated device could distinguish handprints, and employees had to “hand in” when they came to work and “hand out” when they left. The reader recorded arrival and departure times, just like a punch clock, but with an important difference: It could not be fooled by having someone else punch in for an absent worker.
Employees got around this by skipping out the back door; they could “hand-in” and “hand-out” at the usual times, but be gone for part of the day. The back door had an alarm that was supposed to discourage this illicit coming and going, but the staff kept a rolled-up newspaper wedged in the jam to keep the door from closing all the way. Anyone using this door was supposed to “honor” the system by carefully replacing the door-holder. I did not want to face the considerable wrath of black and Hispanic staff, so I complied.
Other memos from the head of our office were about workplace cleanliness. Staffers liked to bring in breakfast and eat at their desks. This way, as far as the hand-print reader was concerned, breakfast counted as work time. Eating was also protection against work; staffers would ignore you or refuse a request if you approached them during a feeding, no matter how odd a time of day it was. However, after a huge styrofoam-plate meal there would be crumbs everywhere. This encouraged the mice, which were often spotted running about, and occasionally showed up dead under desks. In the morning, I sometimes found mouse droppings on my desk. They looked like bran cereal.
Office files were always in terrible shape. Open one, and out would spill crumpled fax cover sheets, but little else. I could tell the handwriting of one black male staffer because it looked like a child’s. I sometimes found vacation brochures or food wrappers in the files. The file room itself was a shambles, with files misplaced, mis-alphabetized or, more often than not, missing.
Staffers sometimes slept at their desks. They would just put their heads down and take a long, unapologetic snooze. One woman always put an open Bible under her head; maybe she thought she could claim she was deep in prayer.
The bathrooms did not have soap or hot water. To get water, you’d press a button on the sink top that would release a three-second burst of cold water that was never enough. You had to keep hitting the button to get your hands clean. Presumably, like the hand-print reader, this was a precautionary measure; the water might never be turned off if it came out of ordinary taps. Paper towels were only intermittently available. Some people brought soap and towels to the office, in little plastic containers, and would gather them up before heading to the bathroom. I wasn’t sure what caused the soap and towel shortage—whether the custodians were slacking off or whether the staff would take supplies home if they were plentiful.
Some of the lawyers were white but the attorney-in-charge was a black woman who, it was clear to me, held her position for racial reasons. It was said that she would fall asleep during settlement conferences with judges. She praised black lawyers lavishly, but sometimes could not remember the names of white lawyers—mine, for example. On the side, she was associated with a civil rights group that frequently sued the city, often claiming racism and discrimination. Despite an accent that sounded Caribbean, she took pains to remind us that she was “a black woman in America,” whatever that was supposed to mean.
One male lawyer, whom I understood to be a Dominican black/Hispanic mix, wore a Bob Marley-style head of braids that fell to his waist. He kept novels about “black power” on his desk and liked to talk about firearms. His fingernails were coated with clear polish on top and dirty underneath. I thought it was an odd combination.
As part of my job I often had to deal with other city agencies, usually by telephone. The contact person for one of these agencies, whom I’ll call “Opal,” was useless. She sounded inebriated on the phone, but that could have been her heavy—probably Jamaican—accent. Or maybe it was a combination of the two. In any event, I could not understand her. “Dizza-opa,” she would answer, which I eventually came to understand was how she said, “This is Opal.”
Opal’s dedication to avoiding any requests I might have for her was remarkable. Like so many black employees, she was on high alert for anything that could remotely be construed as beyond her duties. “Dat ain’t my job” was her refrain.
I could not help noticing, though, that when I overheard a black call her up the going was easier. “Hey, girl,” was how it started, followed by “Alright now, alright now,” knowing laughter, and probably a fulfilled request.
The slightest difficulty or obstacle was enough for black staffers to simply stop working on an assignment. For example, if they could not find a street name in a computer database, it would never occur to them to try a different spelling even if the one they were looking up was clearly a misspelling. If a contact at another agency did not return a phone call, they considered their duty done. A follow-up call would be too much to expect. This meant that a task you thought was underway would languish, and when you finally traced back to the source of the stoppage, they would shamelessly describe some trivial reason as if it were complete justification. It never seemed to occur to them that solving problems sometimes requires trying various approaches.
This, however, was assuming you could get them to agree to do something in the first place. Sometimes they would turn down a request point-blank, even when it was clearly part of their job. “Yo, man, look at dis,” Zeus would say, pointing to piles of files on his desk, when I asked him to do something. “Now what you want from me, man?” Zeus had a single decoration in his cubicle: an emaciated African child bent over in the dirt next to a vulture. The caption read: “I am a human being.” Zeus’ large head on his small body somewhat resembled the child’s.
Black women, meanwhile, were ready to bounce me before I even opened my mouth. I’d walk to their stations and wait politely while they chatted on the phone: “Girl, you didn’t!” When they noticed me trying to get their attention, they’d ice over and glower: “Wha-choo-wan?” Or “You gots some kinda problem?”
These people know they had little reason to worry about any complaint I might make to higher-ups. They knew their jobs were safe. Besides, it seemed to me that a frustrated white person simply delighted them. You were in their territory, and they knew it. For most of the blacks, work of any kind was an imposition to which they submitted as seldom as possible. They never took the slightest interest in it, and had no concept of taking pride in what they did. Their lack of concern for what might happen out in the “white man’s world” was breathtaking. They did just enough to stay out of trouble; an approaching white man was a bother and nothing more.
Telephone conversations with blacks and Hispanics could be surreal. I once called the schools division, an agency from which one would expect clear speech, proper grammar, and some understanding of purpose. A black-sounding woman answered after many rings. When I made a request, she replied with a telephone number. I had had bad experiences with being fobbed off this way, and asked what the number was for. “I don’t gots no idea,” she said. I inquired further. “I don’t know nuthin’,” she replied. “Can you find someone who does?” I asked. “Hol’ on,” she said.
I waited on hold for 10 minutes, after which a woman with a Hispanic accent came on the line and gave me the same number. I said something about having the impression that her office was an “auxiliary office,” but she did not know what that meant. She then went on to say she did not know the function of the office where she was answering the phone: “Nobody evah told us that, suh.”
At least that call was answered. Often, listed numbers went nowhere: they rang and rang, clicked off after a number of rings, or went to a voicemail labyrinth from which there was no escape. You knew that if a recorded black female voice told you to “have a blessed day” the call would never be returned.
If blacks were often hard to understand, Hispanics sometimes did not speak English at all. I met one who worked full-time as the driver for some agency official. I wondered how he could be a reliable driver if he couldn’t read street signs, to say nothing of why a minor official like his boss deserved a chauffeur. One Hispanic did speak some English, but with an astoundingly thick and unintelligible accent. He was a school principal. News stories about the city’s miserable schools invariably blamed “white racism.”
In a place like my office, one might have expected the whites to be drawn to each other like explorers meeting by chance in the jungle, but there were hardly enough whites even to begin to establish a sense of community. There was a Persian lawyer, an Indian, a Chinese, and a Lebanese. They were all dedicated to the job and were probably just as dismayed by what they saw as I was, but never made a racial remark. Other whites seemed to have a strong ethnic identification—Italian or Jewish, for example—that gave them some kind of identity, comfort or protection. Other whites seemed to crave “street cred:” One white woman prominently displayed a photo of herself with what looked like a black prom date; another was married to a Hispanic.
As for ordinary, non-ethnic whites like me, there were maybe two others in the whole office. None of us ever spoke about the situation we faced. It would have been too risky. Whites who worked elsewhere would say things like “It’s crazy there,” but would never mention race. It was much easier to communicate with the whites, and they could usually be counted on to do their jobs, but I never saw the slightest hint of commiseration, much less solidarity.
The blacks, of course, were “bruthah” and “sistah” to each other, but the office was a miscegenist mix that ran the gamut of skin colors, with many racially ambiguous staffers. I never detected racial tension between blacks and Hspanics; if anything there was brown-black solidarity against whites.
I lasted a year. This was a hell I’d never bargained for. For a man just out of law school, this was not even close to what I considered a good legal job or job, period. I had worked in fast food joints in the Midwest that were more professional. And it could not have been clearer that the white man was the enemy. I ruined a suit jacket with armpit sweat because of the pressures of that place.
The supervisors weren’t about to make the situation better. They mostly ignored the minority shenanigans, probably realizing it was useless to complain. If anyone had to respond to complaints about incompetence, it would be the lawyers, not the staff.
I wanted to quit, but the office required a commitment of three years. The only option was to ask for a transfer to another department or location. I did so, but was rejected. I appealed the rejection to a higher authority, who wanted to know why I wanted to leave so badly. I listed some of my experiences. She said they were serious accusations, and demanded details. I didn’t want to say any more, for fear it would come back to me. In the end, I got the transfer to a whiter area without having to go into details.
The new office still had non-whites—particularly black women who felt it was their God-given right not to work—but it was probably more than half white. The cleanliness and the competence were a relief. Having just enough whites to tip the balance made a striking difference. It made “the practice of law” a reality instead of a joke, as it had been at the other office.
Those two work places were a kind of parable for America. So long as there are enough whites to maintain standards and set the tone, we can continue to be a First-World country despite a certain number of non-whites. But past the tipping point the jungle rushes in.
My first job out of law school was an experience I’ll never forget. I think of it every time I hear whites dismiss concerns about becoming a minority in America as “racist paranoia.”