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What a Problem!

The Negroes and the Jews

by Leonora E. Berson
Random House, 436 pp., $8.95

No Name in the Street

by James Baldwin
Dial, 197 pp., $5.95

Whatever the reasons—and common sense is not the most likely one—there seems much less alarm about black anti-Semitism these days than there was four years ago. For example, New York City’s secondary schools are once again the splendid institutions they were before the Afro-American Teachers Association subjected them to its malignant mischief in the late Sixties. The New York Times no longer compiles the indecencies of the streets; and the only present danger that seems clear enough to the Anti-Defamation League to excuse its abandonment of chivalry is Rabbi Meyer Kahane of the Jewish Defense League.

The transient shadow of black anti-Semitism impelled Mrs. Berson and Drs. Weisbord and Stein to their studies; and the lifting of that shadow, if not as fact at least as material for fantasy, has given their work a post-humous quality. All three have most worthily risen to an occasion while it was passing them by. James Baldwin has a different problem: his account of his experiences in the eight years since he published The Fire Next Time is both affecting and informed with the wit of despair. Still the immobility of those years has left him with very little to say about his appointed theme that he did not say then, although Baldwin’s mind and eye are no mean instruments, even when they are marking time. But all parties seem somehow stranded—Mrs. Berson and Weisbord and Stein by the transience of our fashions in Negro themes, and Baldwin by the permanence of the Negro condition.

The specter of black anti-Semitism, though it has departed from the stage, did manage, in its brief appearance, to leave behind suggestive illuminations about the government of cities and the conditioning of their inhabitants. Both inquiries into that subject are conscientious, and in Mrs. Berson’s case even spirited.

All the same, with Baldwin in their company, even though less attentive than usual, one wants in these guides, alert as they are, just a trifle more of the sense of the complexity of life. When Baldwin, rather by the way, remembers his own father’s “unrequited love for the Great God Almighty,” he makes us aware of the stubborn mystery of the transmission of genes, for we substitute his own not-often-enough-requited love for all Mankind. What the merely conscientious writers lack is just that suggestiveness which helps us to understand. Mrs. Berson, for instance, reminds us that what got itself called black anti-Semitism was first noticed in New York in the fall of 1966 when East Harlem’s IS 201 was invested by Negro parents protesting the appointment of Stanley Liss as its principal. Mrs. Berson is most scrupulous in tracing the false promises of the Board of Education that carried so many IS 201 activists from a beginning as hopeful integrationists to an end in a rage that could only be turned against poor Liss, whose otherwise unoffending nature could not exempt him from the crime of being the only visible target.

Mrs. Berson helps us to justify the rage, however misplaced in its object; but what is missing is the effrontery that dares make a guess about the feelings underneath it. Her account reminded me of some of the parents in the IS 201 demonstrations whom I had talked to at the time. One of them had two children in the school, and her fixed judgment was that they were being far worse taught than she herself had been in Whiteville, North Carolina. She felt no curiosity about knowing Liss before dismissing him. “If he was any good,” she flatly said, “he wouldn’t be here.”

With a gesture of her hand she called to witness the streets that stood about her as monuments of incompetence and indifference. There will be those, I suppose, who find feelings of self-hatred in her observation. But I heard it quite differently; to me her words seemed to come far more from the offended pride of someone so habitually served inferior goods that she had come to assume that no one would offer her any other kind. She could, as a reasonable being, understand someone who could endure the life around her, but she could not imagine anyone choosing it. She must have grown so used to seeing competent Negroes in difficulty and incompetent whites in comfort that she could not believe that anyone white would be assigned to service in her neighborhood unless he had dismally failed to make himself useful everywhere else.

Mrs. Berson’s discussion of slum landlords is severe but understanding, and set in motion my own memories of the day or two I spent with the Black Panthers in Brownsville a few summers ago. The Panthers were occupying themselves with the distress of tenants whose houses had been scuttled and left to crumble by their owners. The only available target was a real estate man who had remained behind as the receiver charged by the East New York Savings Bank to administer the properties it had foreclosed.

The Panthers began their negotiations with a distinctly unpleasant emphasis on his first name (“BURR-nard”) and highly unappetizing off-stage mutterings about avaricious Zionists. Even so, their negotiations went well enough to give the pleasing illusion that there are no quarrels too infected if the parties will only accept the universal cure of a dialogue. The realtor agreed to attempt some repairs; privately he expressed the hope that he might do even more, since the bank had been after him to do something for these people and so had his children in Great Neck.

The atmosphere was mellow until the Panthers came to their complaint about a building that was without water because most of its pipes had been stolen, and the landlord substitute replied that, in this case, he could do nothing. There was no money left for repairs and there was nothing for him to do but abandon the place to the depredations of the addicts and the appetites of the worms of decay. As evidence for this assertion, he presented the Panthers with the mortgage foreclosure order on the building. It hardly seemed a weighty exhibit, since pretty much every piece of property in his jurisdiction had also been foreclosed by the East New York Savings Bank and he had already agreed to fix up a number of the others. But then the respectable remain prisoners of the belief that all arguments can be settled with the show of some document, however irrelevant.

The disreputable, however, are convinced that any argument can be settled with the proper display of implacable determination; and the lady Panther to whom the realtor had handed this document could think of nothing useful to do with it except to grimly set about copying from it the names of the lawyers for the East New York Savings Bank. She had hardly begun this activity when her host leaped from behind his chickenwire cage, wrestled the paper from her hand, and fled, consumed by the terror that he, whom the bank officers had so often reproached for not doing enough for their tenants, might have been the instrument for bringing those same tenants, in vengeance or reproach, down upon the bank’s very headquarters. Caught between the Panthers and his principals, he almost howled with suffering. Whatever his sins, he was hardly a spectacle to arouse the beholder to blame the Jews, at least such among them as are left behind in Brownsville.

To whatever extent the quarrel between the Jews and the Negroes has ever been real, its origins may be traced in part to conflicting conceptions about the urban experience. It seems, for example, to be a frequent assumption of studies of the city that the Jews are its prime example of success and the Negroes of failure. And yet, given the level of communal achievement of most cities, how can we speak realistically of one group’s success and another’s failure? A majority of New York’s professional schoolmen are said to be Jewish, and a great many of their pupils are Negroes. The teachers, one supposes, are presumed to be successful while the pupils are widely assessed as failures. But can anyone be taken seriously as a success when his accomplishment has been confined to a system that, most observers seem to agree, is mostly a failure at educating the children of the poor?

Disputes about the blame for this failure are both tedious and seldom to the point; all that seems significant is that so many of the teachers blame the parents and such parents as have any spirit left tend to blame the teachers. When people quarrel about blame, we must assume that they agree about the fact of failure. I do not mean to dismiss the advantages of a union contract under such circumstances, but even that could hardly outweigh the spiritual deprivation that the daily round must inflict upon any teacher with the remotest sense of vocation. In this case at least, it seems to me, we would do better to talk less about Jewish successes and Negro failures and to recognize a catastrophe common to both in every degree except security of employment, no small thing but no sufficient one either.

Now the concession of universal failure happens to be the one most difficult to make; and that difficulty may explain, if not excuse, the occasional self-congratulatory tone in the Jewish side of the debate which is not all that much more attractive than the spite that has sometimes cankered the Negro side. In my own city, most high civic functions—to use an honorific if implausible term for what is little more than the neglect of undisposable garbage—are performed by middle-aged personages who remember being poor when they were young. The subsequent elevation of their titles comes, in the absence of anything more spiritually rewarding, to seem to them the achievement of every hope of glory. The degraded character of their functions absolves them from having any impulse that might direct them to cultivate the means of grace. One thinks especially of those judges who gaze down every day upon products of the city that proclaim its failure, and who then return home refreshed by feeling themselves the embodied proof of the city’s success.

But even those are not sustaining illusions. All that can be shared in the slums, apportioned to the native and his custodian alike, is the fact of failure. The quarrel indeed may be largely over who is responsible for that failure. It does not lie within my province to allot the blame for the torment of the cities. Still it is not unthinkable to say that this might have been arrested if persons of real authority had been troubled enough by it. To be a sensitive victim of such conditions is to suspect that the powerful would not look on so indifferently without a fixed contempt for all who live or work in the slums—a classification of pariah that encompasses a number of Jews and a majority of Negroes.

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