Racism in My Day Has Had Its Day - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Racism in My Day Has Had Its Day
by
President Kennedy and Jack Benny appear at a high school prom on June 8, 1963 (Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday

It’s a gloomy, cloudy day here in Beverly Hills. On days like this, gloomy, cloudy thoughts come into my brain. Or, maybe it’s because it’s spring and it’s Prom Time and Prom Time back in 1962 was one of the unhappiest moments of my life. It was an avatar of the racism of the era, and a betrayal by a boy and a girl I had thought were two of my best friends.

Or maybe it comes into my mind because a few weeks ago, I had lunch with a pretty, tall black young woman I had met at Mr. Chow’s entrance a few days before. In a general conversation, she was talking about the “racism” that affected her everyday life.

I asked her if she could mention a few of the most hurtful memories of racism that burdened her. She said she could not recall any but maybe there had been some she had forgotten.

I have not forgotten.

In the deed, explicitly stated, was a prohibition against selling the property to “Hebrews.” Thanks to LBJ, I got the house anyway.

I grew up in a suburb of Washington, D.C., called Silver Spring. It was almost all white with a few very horribly rundown black neighborhoods that did not even have indoor plumbing. I think that neighborhood was called “Brookville Road.” But among the “whites” were a number of Jews. My street, an amazingly beautifully landscaped dead-end called Harvey Road, was almost exactly half Jewish and half Gentile. I counted them almost every day in 1960-62 as I walked to the mailbox to send my sister, a student at Wellesley College, a letter.

I had never known a world without anti-Semitic racism. Every day when my parents would drive us downtown for a movie or a play or shopping, we would pass by various elegant neighborhoods like Spring Valley or Wesley Heights or Kenwood. We would pass immense green golf courses like the Chevy Chase Club or Congressional. My mother would comment on how she loved the trees and the spacious old houses.

I would ask my mother why we didn’t buy a house there. My parents were not poor. But, my mother explained, those neighborhoods and country clubs were “restricted.” That meant that Jews were not allowed to live there or own land there or be there at all. That would be in the actual deeds to the land. It could not be transferred to Jews EVER no matter how many owners the land had enjoyed.

Provisions like that were upheld routinely in federal courts, including the Supreme Court.

That hurt my mother a lot and it hurt me insanely. Even now when I drive by the Chevy Chase Club on Connecticut Avenue, I get furious.

There were also “town clubs” like the Metropolitan Club that did not admit Jews. My father, a distinguished economist and advisor to presidents, would not even have possibly been allowed to join.

My neighbors on Harvey Road, the Kennedys, not the famous ones, had rough, hot-rodding friends. One of them yelled at me as I passed on my bike, “Out of my way, kike!” I did not know what that word even meant but it did not sound good. It was not good and when I told my father about it, he went over to see Mr. Kennedy, the man of the house, and explain what had happened. Mr. Kennedy apologized and said it would not happen again and it did not.

My sister and I were blessed to attend a beautifully landscaped elementary school called Parkside. It was a lovely place — although segregated — in the early 1950s and it still is. One day in sixth grade, out of the blue, two tough kids in my class, Alan Lester and Billy Baran, told me to move my chair, “You dirty Jew.”

I swung on them. They swung on me. Neither of us landed a punch and Mr. Dodd, our extremely fine sixth-grade teacher, broke it up. I don’t recall any problems like that again at Parkside.

My junior high was a different story. It had just been racially desegregated as I entered 7th grade. There were many bomb threats. There was electric racial tension among the ethnic groups. One of the black kids constantly teased me about being Jewish. Luckily for me, he was a scrawny, not-well-coordinated student. A white boy named Garry Rourke, who sat in front of me in math class, shoved his desk against mine and called me a “f–king” Jew.

For weeks after that, I would have wrestling matches and not particularly dangerous fistfights with him after school. One of my best friends, still a close friend, Nolan Rappaport, a Jew, suggested that I take up weightlifting. I did and I became the strongest I have ever been.

Garry Rourke stopped taunting me. Then he started again with the help of some of his “friends.” By this time, I was strong enough that I was fairly safe. It’s almost unbelievable how fast word gets around a junior high school that a boy has become much stronger.

My neighbors on Harvey Road, the Kennedys, not the famous ones, had rough, hot-rodding friends. One of them yelled at me as I passed on my bike, “Out of my way, kike!”

I hated Montgomery Hills, though. I applied to attend two prestige private schools, “Sidwell Friends” and “St. Albans.” I took aptitude tests and did extremely well on them. But I was rejected by both schools with the admonition that, “We only take one Jew per class and we’ve already got our Jew. We’ll let you know if he drops out.”

My high school, Montgomery Blair, named for Lincoln’s pal and postmaster general, was a different story indeed. It was a pleasant, glorious school. We had incredibly good teachers, especially, Miss Hazel Bratt. She was our Latin teacher. She had us wear bedsheets over our clothes so we would look like Roman senators.

Miss Bratt congratulated fine work in class by saying, “Good mental thinking.”

We had the best athletic teams in the state and cheered to the rafters when our school basketball team won the state basketball championship. The team was almost all white. So were all the other teams. Times have changed.

There was only one venomous moment. I had been “dating” a girl named Judy. It was the most innocuous “dating” you could imagine. Movies. Miniature golf. Picnics. It was spring of ’62 and I invited her to the senior prom. She cheerfully agreed to go. Two days later, in a breezeway between the B and C buildings, she told me tearfully that she could not go to the prom with me because her father did not want her going to such a huge event with a Jew.

I was stunned and desperately hurt. I picked myself up and on a night when Judy had majorette practice, I drove to her home and rang the doorbell. Her father came to the door. I told him who I was. He told me affably that he knew who I was. I told him I could not believe he had barred Judy from going to the prom with me because I was (and am) a Jew. I told him my father and my grandparents had been born in America and that my Pop had served meritoriously in the Navy during the War.

He said he had done no such thing. Perhaps, he suggested, it was a cruel prank by his daughter and a former boyfriend, whom I had thought was a close pal of mine.

I knew her former boyfriend well (or thought I did) and I knew him to be a jokester. Maybe…

The next day at school, Judy approached me and told me that her father was so angry at me that he had barred her from ever going out with me, even for miniature golf. She had tears in her eyes.

I went to prom with a pretty girl who happened to be Judy’s ex-boyfriend’s younger sister. She was a perfectly nice girl, but there was no affection between us at all.

Interestingly enough, immediately after prom, Judy and her “ex” boyfriend started dating intensely. They have now been married for 56 years. He is a famous law professor of a very complex subject, tax law, at Harvard.

There were no other shocks even comparable to that one afterward.

In about 1965, LBJ got Congress to pass anti-discrimination laws for residential housing. The first home I ever bought, in Wesley Heights, D.C., was sold to me by a Jewish saleswoman at a real estate brokerage called W.C. and A.N. Miller, which had been notorious for only selling in neighborhoods “restricted” against Jews. In the deed, explicitly stated, was a prohibition against selling the property to “Hebrews.” Thanks to LBJ, I got the house anyway. (It was a VERY small house but in a beautiful neighborhood. Wesley Heights is still one of the most beautiful areas in America.)

Not much happened after that. I had a girlfriend who told me with gales of laughter that her mother, an Irishwoman from a suburb of Philadelphia, hated Hitler because (and I quote here), “He didn’t finish the job.” A girl I dated at about the same time, who was probably the most beautiful human being I have ever met, except for my wife, came with me to the Kennedy Center. We sat with my parents, Herbert and Mildred Stein, in the White House box, thanks to my father’s high position at the Nixon White House. Her comment on it was that it must be satisfying to me, “an ambitious Jew,” to be there. She said it kindly and we are still in touch. She’s super successful and still beautiful. She had been at Madeira, a fine private girls’ school, when I met her.

Now, I live mostly in Beverly Hills. I live virtually next door to the Los Angeles Country Club. As far as I know, it is still “restricted” against Jews, although that might have changed.

Just within the last several years, a lovely woman who had been a pal of my hero father-in-law, Col. Dale Denman, Jr., in a small town in Arkansas and then had become rich, proposed me for membership in El Dorado CC, a beautifully landscaped club near our club near Palm Springs. I had been warned that the club was barred to Jews but the manager of the club told me that it would be “no problem.” In a few days, I was blackballed for El Dorado. A representative of the club told me it was because they did not take people who worked in “show business.” As I asked him, “Do you mean you would not have allowed Ronald Reagan to join?” No answer.

I don’t want to go on about this except to note that things have changed dramatically for the better. The standard cry that we have “institutionalized racism” and discrimination is a joke to those of us who actually lived through it. And by the way, how did we Jews deal with the discrimination against us? We worked harder. We studied more. We read books about how to prepare for the SATs. We did not riot. We did not burn down anything. Mostly, we didn’t even complain about it. We just bore with it and went on with getting ahead.

My wife is a Gentile, a Presbyterian whose family have been Elders forever. Her father was a fantastically brave hero in Germany and in Vietnam. He fought to liberate “Gunskirchen Lager,” an unspeakably cruel Nazi death camp. He cried when he talked about what he saw there. Despite my occasional misconduct, he never said an anti-Semitic word and now his daughter and I have been married for more than 50 years.

The America my wife, my son, and my unbelievably gorgeous granddaughter live in is an incomparably better place for everyone than it was when our neighbor’s friend called me a “kike.” Incredibly wonderful men like Col. Denman made this possible.

I am sad that some black people and some white people still think this is a racist country. It’s not, and I can remember when it was. God bless America. My parents had many faults. But they drummed into us night and day how blessed we were to live in America, the glorious heaven on earth God gave us. My wife and I know it. I hope my son and my granddaughter know it, too.

Ben Stein
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Ben Stein is a writer, actor, economist, and lawyer living in Beverly Hills and Malibu. He writes “Ben Stein’s Diary” for every issue of The American Spectator.
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