Black Roots, White Poison

I often think about how I would tell a man dying of thirst that the only water he can find is poisoned. "Excuse me, sir, but I don't think you should drink that water. You see, it's poisoned, so you might do better to wait for something better to drink." Or, "Why don't we discuss your thirst, because you may not be as thirsty as you think, and anyway, you're not thirsty enough to drink that." Or, "No, wait. Don't drink that. The best thing for you, if you're really thirsty is this sand, no, seriously, you just take some of it like this and.." I wonder if I might have better luck if I turned to someone in Chem 20 or Ec 10 and told them that the system they want to become a part of is not really practicable, equitable, or even desirable, and that it might not last too long in its present form. The problem is a conflict in two dimensions. I might be trying to convince the man that the water is poisoned, but he is arguing that he is thirsty.

Pre-meds and pre-laws and pre-business folks are not worrying about whether the system works or not. They're concerned with what they can do once they become a part of that system. And I would be the last to challenge their right to get into it, to become professionals, to go to the top. I think, though, that we are forgetting the second dimension. It's one thing to decide to remedy minority underrepresentation at all levels of the social structure. But will that solve what may be another more inherent problem of the structure itself?

When I become a doctor, how many more black children will be adequately fed? How many more black parents won't worry for the lives of their children at school? How much easier will it be for my children to learn their own history and culture? Will the average income of blacks in this country have risen more than statistically when my $50,000 per year is averaged in? If all these questions have negative answers, then I have to stop and decide whether I have some good reasons for going to medical school. Those questions are integral to what I foresee as my future, yet, if I cannot relate a career in medicine to them, then did I struggle through organic and Bio 2 for nothing? And even if my career does not interfere with my long-term goals, is scratching my way to and through medical school worth all the time and money if it is not related to my goals, and if I risk losing some of my commitment to the black people who pull the cart I ride?

Only fear of the answer prevents me from asking these questions of the brothers and sisters around me. It's not really my fault that black people are daily brutalized by their employers, by the police, or by "bands of mischievous white youth," as The Boston Globe calls them. Maybe I shouldn't be worried about U.S. policy toward apartheid South Africa; no one else seems more than intellectually concerned. It used to be that "the community" meant a great deal to black students; after a while, they only used the term a great deal. Now I really do not know what the brothers and sisters are thinking, mainly because I have not made the opportunity to find out. I think I could start to hate anyone who told me that I was foolish not to want a comfortable life, that I should believe the black administrators who told me that just my being a black doctor would improve the lot of black people, that things cannot be changed easily, and that I should pull myself together, because poverty is a relative condition. Relative to what?

People forget easily, and do their best to ignore the things they cannot forget. I sometimes wonder what would happen if the violence that accompanied school desegregation in Boston were transplanted here at Harvard, if black students here felt the physical and psychic wrath of the white folks for a while. As it was, there was hardly a stir here. One would think that Boston was an isolated instance, that that stuff only happens in South Boston and Charlestown. Not so, black people, not so. Think back to the Price family (if you remember, if you heard), who lived just blocks from Harvard Square. If you look around, you will find that you don't even have to leave Harvard to find racial violence. People should realize that Malcolm X was not joking when he said that "a nigger with a Ph.D from Harvard" is still called a nigger. People need to remember that we are only three or four generations out of slavery. People need to think back 10 and 20 years when black people were fighting for civil rights. A decade ago black students were not here in the numbers they are today. A century and some years ago your great-grand and great-great-grandparents were owned by some white man. Things have not changed as much as some would have us believe. When I hear about equal rights, and equal opportunity and upward mobility, and when people tell me how much progress has been made and how lucky I am to be at Harvard, I don't have to think twice. I choke.

Racism: It seems sometimes that people avoid that term with a passion. I think one of the reasons Professor Ewart Guinier turns some people off is that he raises his voice when he says "racism." Everyone, white and black, knows he's crazy, because racism is only in South Boston. It is a minor problem, just an idiosyncrasy that some white people picked up somewhere. Nothing serious, of course. Apartheid? That could never happen here in the States. It seems to me that there are blacks as dark as the South Africans, and whites as whites as the Afrikaaners here. And lots of police and police dogs...

Just another facet of our alienation: We aren't reg'lar niggers; we goes to Harvard University. And when I get out of graduate school 33 years from now, I'll have enough cash never to see poverty, racism, unemployment, discrimination. Money is the key, man, you gots to get the cash money!

The thirsting man will tell you essentially the same thing: "I'll take my chances with the poisoned water, thank you." And what can you or I say? There are excellent illusions of power out there, and people really think they will get the power to change things. All they have to do is take their Harvard diploma and ask for it. And when they get told no, they still have their career, and their security, and the small reassurance that "things will get better as soon as the economy gets back on the upswing." Meanwhile back in the ghetto...

There aren't easy answers, particularly when each one of us is struggling with individual commitments to his or her education. If I could have done it over again, I would have spent more time talking to people about the things I have said here, if anyone wanted to talk about them. Now I feel old and very different from the person I was two years ago, when the real world was not quite as immediate to me. (Although someone called me a cynic then and undoubtedly has not changed his mind.) It is difficult to talk about social responsibility when everything and everyone tells me the sixties are dead. It's hard to speak of the community without sounding cliche. But my skin is still black. and, last I heard, the black community is still out there struggling. And though I haven't seen one, I don't think I can feed my Harvard diploma to any starving children.

I have nothing against Harvard alumni, or professionals, or Harvard diplomas. I'm not dealing on that level; I'm arguing about the water. But if someone would point out the connection between improving the statistics on black people and changing their condition, I would be glad to look, except I don't see too good. Got blood in my eye, I think.