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True Colours

One can both deplore racism and acknowledge that sometimes the deck contains a race card

by John Mendelssohn

In the land to which I am reluctantly repatriated, a Conservative Member of Parliament who served a long time in the British army was relieved last week of some of his power and influence for recalling, among other things, that “a lot of ethnic minority soldiers…were idle and useless, but…used racism as cover for their misdemeanours.”

I’ve never been in the British army, nor even, owing to strenuous effort, in its American equivalent, but I’ve been in plenty of American post offices, and, right after the birth of my daughter, when I was intent on a steady paycheck, I worked as a word processor jockey at the law firm of Pillsbury Madison & Sutro in San Francisco, and I think I may know where this MP was, you know, coming from. 

At PMS, I had the great pleasure of working at one point with a Ms. Jan Broadnax, who was black. Ms. Broadnax arrived late every day, went home early, and devoted at least 45 minutes of every hour to chatting on the telephone, ensuring that her fingernails, to which tiny jewels were commonly affixed, always looked really, really good, and taking cigarette breaks. It was my job, I came to understand, to try to pick up the slack. When I complained, I was summarily transferred to another, less salubrious, floor of the building. PMS didn’t have only a lot of floors, but multiple buildings for them. 

Over the three excruciating years I endured there, I encountered around a dozen Broadnaces in different places, in different litigation groups. (Perhaps the most notable of which, at least in terms of the Orwellianishness of its name, was the environmental group, whose job it was to represent big industrial polluters sued under the Environmental Protection Act). It was, as I suspect it remains, a good time to be black and a woman at Pillsbury Madison & Sutro. They’d have had to throw an attorney out a window (as I longed so often to do!) to get fired. 

And the post offices! The last time I was in the-land-o'-the-free, they were full of so-called civil servants who made La Broadnax look in comparison like Horatio Alger. If I could get a refund for every minute I’ve stood in an immobile post office queue while black women employees interrupted their shrill gossiping only long enough to sneer disdainfully at the poor devils waiting for their attention, I wouldn’t be turning 60 in May, but late August. 

Now then. Were there also exemplarily conscientious and hard-working black employees at PMS and in the American civil service? Absolutely. And did they have plenty of lazy, irresponsible, even foul-smelling white colleagues? Absolutely. And is it tragic that racism has for so long been so deeply entrenched in American society, to the tune of lazy, irresponsible, foul-smelling whites getting jobs and promotions for which conscientious and hard-working black counterparts have been infinitely better qualified? Absolutely.

Do I deplore everything about racism, and xenophobia, and homophobia, and sexism? Absolutely, and if you present the preceding paragraphs as evidence to the contrary, shame on you.  

Martin Luther King Jr said, “He who lives with untruth lives in spiritual slavery.” That was true when blacks were denied decent employment because of their race, and it’s no less true now, when nobody would dare fire a member of certain ethnic groups. Racism doesn’t end, I don’t think, when one group stops oppressing another and instead patronises it, lets it get away with murder. It ends when the world’s Broadnaces are shown the door in spite of their colour just as much as their diligent co-workers are rewarded in spite of theirs. 

For the record, I am by no means trying to get you to believe that I was as diligent as La Broadnax was lazy. I hated everything about Pillsbury Madison & Sutro (with the exception of a couple of really nice attorneys, who'd apparently slipped in when no one was watching), and brought my awesome full powers of passive aggression to bear on my work for the pompous little fascist cocksuckers who made up most of the PMS attorney population. Mindful that I’d be eligible for unemployment insurance if they fired me, I was their first male employee with a drop earring, their first male employee in a bolo tie (the '80s, you see), and then no tie at all, their first male employee in what I called sneakers and the Brits would have called trainers. That I was commonly seen to be hard-working was a function of the fact that, while my colleagues read or socialised or washed great huge handfuls of chocolates down with diet soft drinks when the pompous little fascist cocksuckers weren’t screaming for their semi-literate briefs to be revised, I typically worked on my own writing. 

They wouldn’t fire even me! I had to resign. And then filed a successful lawsuit against them for having made me miserable. When their lawyer deposed me, he tried to embarrass me by asking if it were true that I’d worked for Larry FLynt Publications. Darn tootin’, I affirmed. And a much more decent and upstanding group of people there than at PMS too. He couldn’t help but guffaw. A lackey of fascists, but a good audience nonetheless, he.

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