[Marxism] whites only towns

MICHAEL YATES mikedjyates at msn.com
Tue Oct 25 18:49:48 MDT 2005

I lived in Johnstown, Pensylvania from 1969 until 1988.  I taught at a 
college there.  Johnstown was an inordinately racist town.  You couldn't go 
into a bar without someone making a racial slur within ten minutes.  One of 
my colleagues, a white woman, was dating a black man (whom she later 
married).  She had taken a small apartment in the downtown of the city.  Her 
boyfriend had made a couple of visits to see her, and soon after someone 
torched her apartment.

I tried to learn as much about the history of Johnstown as I could. There 
were lots of interesting things to find out.  William Z. Foster was tarred 
and feathered when he came to town to help build support for the 1919 steel 
strike.  Durign the "Little Steel" strike of 1938, black steel workers at 
the Bethlehem Steel Company plant remained in the mill.  They had faced 
brutal discrimination and had been ignored by the unions.  There are photos 
from Newsweek showing black and white workers engaged in violent fights 
outside the mill gate.

There are very few black people in Johnstown.  There were some there before 
WWI, but after the war more arrived, pushed out of the south by mechanized 
agriculture and pulled north by a desire for a better life. The new arrivals 
were sometimes recruited as strikebreakers. Johnstown's black population 
grew considerably after the war and in the wake of the 1919 strike.  With 
their coming, the KKK perked up (Pennsylvania has always been a hotbed of 
Klan activity).  There were cross burnings and threats to blacks.  Then 
after an incident in 1922, the town's mayor issued an infamous proclamation, 
ordering all blacks out of town, out of the county, and out of the state by 
a certain time.  A very high percentage of blacks left, although exact 
numbers are not known.  They didn't come back, no doubt because Johnstown 
was now known as a white town.

In the 1980s when I taught labor education courses to workers there, a 
student complained on the course evaluation that there were too many blacks 
in the class.  There was one black student in the class.  I had 
confrontations about race several times, usually in bars and bowling alleys. 
  At the college black students faced terrible harrassment, including 
bullets through their dorm room windows.

Here is story of an encounter I had:

“Bowling Alley”

	It was a mid-Sunday afternoon in late Winter.  We had just finished our 
match, and I was disappointed with my poor performance.  For some reason I 
could not prevent my left wrist from turning over when I released my bowling 
bowl, and this caused the ball to hook disastrously to the right.  My 
teammates groaned as my scores plummeted about 40 pins below my average and 
our chances of winning the league championship melted away.  Luckily it 
wasn’t a cutthroat league, so they commiserated as I packed away my 
equipment and put on my coat to leave.  As I passed by the manager’s desk, I 
glanced up at the television set on the wall.  A professional basketball 
game was in progress and since I am a basketball junky, I stopped to watch.  
The Chicago Bull were playing the Boston Celtics.  I hated the Celtics and 
their rabid fans and arrogant general manager and former coach, Red 
Auerbach.  I was gratified to see that the Bulls’ star, Michael Jordan, was 
playing a spectacular game, on his way to scoring more than 60 points in 
what turned out to be a double overtime Celtics victory.

	Another man was watching the game, along with his young son.  I recognized 
him as an average bowler and delivery truck driver, something of a loudmouth 
with a higher opinion of his bowling skills than his ability warranted.  
Normally I would have ignored him, but Jordan’s great game was so exciting 
that I just had to say something about it.  So I remarked, “Boy, isn’t he an 
amazing player.”  This innocent remark sent the man into a tirade.  “That 
nigger’s not the best player.  The best player is that white guy, Larry 
Bird.”  Now Johnstown is a racist town.  It is impossible to go into a bar 
in a white neighborhood and not hear the word “nigger” within 30 minutes.  
While warming up before a basketball pickup game, one of my students 
commented that he liked the Boston Celtics because they were the “white 
team.”  In 1922 the mayor of Johnstown actually ordered all black residents 
who had not lived in the town for at least five years to leave.  Black men 
had been recruited to work in the city by the steel companies in the wake of 
the bitter 1919 strike, and the mayor issued his order after an incident 
involving a black person and the police.  It is not known exactly how many 
African Americans left town, but the growth of the black population stopped. 
  Today blacks comprise less than 3% of the city’s residents.

	Yet even though I have experienced open racism numerous times in Johnstown, 
I was startled by the this man’s vehemence.  His face had turned red, and 
the veins on his neck were showing.  I said, “What difference does skin 
color make; Jordan is a great player. --Period.”  He glared at me and 
yelled, “Don’t tell me about the niggers.  I lived near them.  I know what 
they’re like.  They’re no fucking good.”  I looked down at his son and said, 
“Hey, you’re really setting a fine example for your kid.  He’ll grow up to 
be a bigot just like you.”  At this, he lost his composure completely and 
said, “Listen, four eyes, I’ll knock your fucking glasses off.  I don’t give 
a fuck who you are .”  I noticed that no one at the desk was making any 
effort to defuse this situation.  So I just said, “Go ahead and hit me if 
you want to.”  He didn’t, and I picked up my bag and left.

	These days there are those, especially on the right, who say that we have 
overcome racism, and it is time for minorities to stop moaning about it and 
get on with their lives.  I have no doubt whatever that these persons have 
spent very little time in the bars and bowling alley of our towns and 
cities.  My antagonist’s racism was disgustingly blatant, but no more so 
that of millions of others.  A faculty member at my school once complained 
in the faculty dining room that it was a shame that his daughter could not 
get free dental care at the University’s dental clinic when all of the 
“niggers” could.  At least I helped to deny this man tenure.

	 Of course, most racism is more subtle, so woven into the fabric of 
everyday life that most whites just take it for granted.  It crosses all 
classes, but that of white workers is the saddest and says the most about 
how this economic system deforms our personalities.  The man who confronted 
me in the bowling alley was a delivery truck driver, doing menial labor at 
low wages.  He obviously had been poor as a child.  Yet he hated the poorest 
and most exploited of all workers.  He had been led to believe that black 
people are the lowest of the low, and since he grew up with them, he must be 
awfully low himself.  This filled him with shame, but he dealt with this 
shame by coming to think that black persons must in some sense be 
responsible for not only their own misery but his as well.  His hatred 
transformed shame into superiority, a feeling encouraged by other whites, 
not least of whom were employers who used racism to drive a wedge between 
those whose alliance would be most dangerous to their power.

	It is hard for me to think of the incident in the bowling alley without 
remembering the minstrel show and all of the other examples set for me by 
teachers, friends, clergy, and other adults.  My  college biology teacher, 
for example, said that if a white woman had a “black” child, there must have 
been a “nigger in the woodpile.” The very geography of my hometown was 
imbued with racism.  I won’t deny that progress in race relations has been 
made, but the white suburban kids who fill my classes are still writing 
racist graffiti on the bathroom walls and still fuming about welfare as a 
code for racism in their essays.  Just how different is their upbringing 
from mine?  White people are raised to be racists, and it takes a mighty 
effort to overcome this.  I know.  I’m still trying.

Michel Yates

More information about the Marxism mailing list