Some years ago, a professor at Stanford University set up a mock prison on campus and recruited students to play roles as guards and prisoners. It was to be a two-week experiment, but within a few days the professor aborted the study because the student-guards turned vicious. To maintain power, they brutalized the student-prisoners whom they considered troublemakers. In like manner, some of the student-prisoners turned to collaboration with the student-guards in order to gain a scrap of control over their lives. The professor concluded that humans quickly learn to act according to their expectations of the roles they are given. This he called The Lucifer Effect.
I’m writing about this because after a week of non-stop news about the racial animosity gripping our society, I awoke at two this morning alarmed that the situation is unchanged—probably worsened—since I was a kid growing up in an industrial, blue-collar New Jersey city during the years that Puerto Ricans were first arriving in large numbers.
My father was a cop in that city. And a bully. I fictionalize him in a novel I’m completing:
Tony often came home at the end of his shift to describe his prowess at law enforcement. Like the dirty-talking woman he had to slam against a wall after he arrested her on a drunk and disorderly call. “She started swearing at me,” he told Antoinette. “She had to learn ya’ don’t talk to a police officer that way.” Or how he had kneed a young Puerto Rican in the groin hard enough to leave him doubled up on the floor of a holding cell.
“Maybe he didn’t know enough English to understand what you wanted,” Antoinette said.
“He was just making out that he didn’t comprendo,” Tony said. “I’ve seen him around. He’s a wise-ass Spic. Always gives me this stare like he wants to knife me. That’s how Spics are. They all carry knives. I opened the cell and gave him a little push from behind to get him to hop-to, and he turned around too fast, like he was gonna take a swing at me. So I shoved my knee up between his balls. He understood that pretty well.”
For my father, there seemed to be an endless supply of wise guys, drunks and punks—both male and female—who didn’t hop-to. He even made it a point to tell my mother and me how blacks have a particular stink about them when they perspire.
I didn’t get it. I thought my Puerto Rican classmates in middle school were cool guys with whom I got along just fine. I was crazy for a dark-eyed Puerto Rican girl named Rita. And my best friend during those years was Lawrence Dalton—a Negro, as we called “them” back then.
If I indict my Dad for his wrongs, though, I also have to point an accusing finger at myself:
- When we were planning my wedding, my future in-laws refused to invite one of my friends because he was dating a Jamaican girl. Instead of insisting, I let it go.
- When I was a cub reporter earning a hundred dollars a week, I drove a jalopy Cadillac. The police chief of one of the towns on my beat pulled up next to me at a gasoline station and called to me: “What are you doing in that nigger car?” Instead of writing a story about it, I let it go.
- When I was brand new at IBM in the late Sixties and turning out the employee newspaper at one of their sites, the head of Personnel called me about doing a story on the fledgling diversity program there. He opened with: “We have to do something for the Boons.” Instead of reporting him, I let it go.
Prejudice is a form of bullying. I realize today that my father succeeded in teaching me to be a racial bully—not in my overt actions, but by my cowardly silence, by my benign bigotry.
Maybe by getting out of bed in the middle of the night to write about it, I am finally standing up and trying in some small way to right what has been so terribly wrong for so terribly long.