There was this kid in our class at P. S. 217, back there in the 'Flatbush '50s. I'm not going to name names, but if anyone is cares to look, you can know him by his smirk in the picture of our eighth grade graduating class. For convenience, I'll call this guy K. K was not particularly smart, or athletic, or talented, or attractive, or congenial, so he was quite a way down in the nebbish area. But to give him his due, he was intense, dogged, hard-working, and perpetually argumentative. He was not afraid to offend. He took positions that no one else in the schoolyard supported. I remember him haranguing me on the subject of social security. It was a bad thing, he asserted, because his father could make more money by investing on his own rather than contributing to the pot. "But, but, but...," I remember stuttering, "it's insurance, and not everyone is a good investor." This exchange must have taken place during the Truman years. In the P. S. 217 schoolyard, where everyone was the child or grandchild of immigrants, FDR was our guy and social security was a fact of life, a revolutionary improvement in quality of life. Besides, wasn't it the case that my widowed grandmother received $32 a month -- not enough to live on, but a great help, enough to pay her rent? To argue against social security -- where in the world could K get such weird, off-the-track ideas? Plus K was a Yankees fan --an unholy, contrarian jerk!
Then K disappeared for a month or a year -- some period of time, I can't remember exactly how long. He had relatives in a southern city -- Baltimore, I believe, and he lived with them for an extended while. When he returned, he starting spouting the most appalling racist remarks, one of which is engraved on my memory: "they have a lot of uppity blacks down there, they won't even get off the sidewalk for you." Whoa, daddy. First of all, no one said "blacks" in those days -- they were "Negroes." And second -- "uppity?" I had never heard the term before and was shocked beyond measure. "Get off the sidewalk" --WTF??? Beyond my conception, beyond anyone's conception in our part of the universe. Remember, dear reader, that the only person more sacred to the schoolyarders than FDR was Jackie Robinson.
I tell you, I gave K a lot of room after that conversation. Truth to tell, there was no need for our paths to cross -- we weren't in the same classroom and K didn't play softball or basketball -- as I said, he was pretty much of a klutz.
I looked up K on the internet. He's a retired professor of economics and is now a fellow at a right-wing think tank. He's made a career out of opposing third-world development and supporting "free market solutions" to all our ills. That dogged dullness has produced a number of books. I've even found a picture of him -- where he was once greasy and pimpled, he's now bald and sleek, with a malevolent cast to his eye.
There's always been a connection in my mind between conservatism and racism. The link is narcissism. "I've got mine, let "them" take care of themselves." For the Ks of the world, it's not "how do we take care of less fortunate and of our old people?" It's, "how do 'we' deal with 'them.'" And "they" are usually, almost always, darker-skinned than "we." I'm sure that K would deny that his "free-market" views have anything to do with racism. But I know better -- I was there at the beginning, before K became quite so sleek.