White and yellow do not make
Published in the Brookline
During the opening ceremony at last week's convention of the American
Psychological Association, held downtown at the Hynes Convention Center,
I found myself wondering how many of Brookline's six gazillion psychologists
were also in attendance. The ceremony's theme, "Many Voices Into One,"
reflected the convention's focus this year on ethnic diversity. As I sat
waiting for Jesse Jackson's keynote address, I wondered whether our local
therapists and research psychologists accepted the comforting view that
Brookline is an ideal multicultural mixture of people from all around
Certainly there is evidence for increased Brookline diversity compared
to the not-so-distant past. As noted proudly on Brookline's websites,
residents come from an astonishing number of countries. Our schools educate
children speaking 30 different languages, with bilingual programs for
Chinese, Japanese, and Russian speakers. Stores and restaurants offer
an exciting array of international foods and goods, turning every walk
through our commercial districts into a potential adventure.
On the other hand, after a year of wandering around town I've come to
notice that our claim to diversity is disconcertingly incomplete. Noticeably
absent from the bilingual programs and Asian restaurants and Russian signs
is any significant Hispanic or African-American presence.
At July's Wednesday night concerts in Emerson Park, the sea of white
and Asian faces make the two or three African-Americans stand out as a
reminder of how few they are.
When I sit in the parks, enchanted by the sounds of Chinese and Hebrew
and Japanese and Russian, even sometimes Italian and French, I almost
never hear Spanish.
When I sit in a Brookline Village pizza place and three African-American
teenagers walk in to eat, I notice that I notice. They sit and have a
good time. They are not made to feel unwelcome. But I realize that here,
just a few blocks from Roxbury and Jamaica Plain, African-Americans and
Hispanics are woefully underrepresented.
Race, culture, and class are inextricably interconnected. African-Americans
reflect a racial identity and Hispanics (varying mixtures of black and
brown and red and white) an ethnic one, But in both cases, certainly in
the American consciousness, race and ethnicity imply economic status.
Because to the American mind blacks and Hispanics are poor, their general
absence from high-cost Brookline remains unremarkable.
Yet the implication oversimplifies. Not everyone in Brookline has a lot
of money. And black professionals gentrifying Roxbury's Fort Hill rather
than moving to Brookline are not poor.
As a Jew who has lived in places unlike Brookline, I know something about
being a minority. I can only imagine what it's like to be part of a historically
poor and oppressed minority still subjected to demeaning stereotypes,
unconcerned public officials, and a public tired of stubborn racial problems.
So I wonder to what extent Brookline's own institutional culture forms
a barrier to those African-Americans and Hispanics who, like others, might
indeed want to move to a town known for its good schools, liberal politics,
and pleasant lifestyle.
And I wonder why this issue does not seem to be an issue, beyond Arthur
Conquest's valuable columns in the TAB.
Why should we care? On simple moral grounds, removing the vestiges of
a racist past and present is the right thing to do. It would make more
honest our claim to being a progressive and multicultural town and help
eradicate the continuing general stereotype that Brookline is a privileged
enclave far removed from the surrounding world. Claiming diversity without
our two most significant non-white groups is historically and emotionally
dishonest even if it may be technically correct.
But this isn't just a call for more do-gooder liberalism. More selfishly,
adding some salsa and soul to Brookline's multicultural pot would be good
for all of us, and especially good for our children. As noted at the psychologists'
convention, even white children do better in multicultural classrooms.
I'm grateful that my daughter's school and playgrounds are filled with
enough Asian-Americans so that each individual child becomes just another
kid. But it would be better if there were more black and Hispanic children
so that each one didn't have the burden of representing an entire group
of people. It would be better, indeed, if there were more working class
people of all races in town, to better reflect the real world. I would
like my daughter to come of age in the next millennium with these issues
truly behind her, in a Brookline whose claim to diversity survived the
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