I was taught by black teachers alongside black children from diverse backgrounds — poor and middle class, Southern and Northern, country and ghetto, Army brats and the children of black lawyers and doctors — that the battle for civil rights was a shining part of American history, very much on the model of the Second World War. A terrible conflict had consumed the efforts of people I considered to be my personal heroes, and then the good guys had won. For proof of this, I needed to look no further than my best friends, my neighbors, my favorite teachers, so many of whom were black. Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, Dr. Charles Drew: in the City of the Future, in 1970, a young Jewish boy could look at the lives of these people and feel connected to them, indebted to them — in a very real way, descended from them. Because if there was one salient fact about the black history that I learned, from the lips of black teachers, as a boy growing up in Columbia, Md., it was this: Black history was my history too. Black music was my music, and black art was my art, and the struggles and the sufferings of black heroes were undertaken not just for the sake of their fellow African-Americans but for my sake, and for the good of us all.
When I left the City of the Future to attend college in Pittsburgh, I began the journey that eventually landed me at last in the capital of the eternal American present: Los Angeles. And on that morning of the Simpson verdict, I discovered, to my shame, to my absolute wonder and horror, that in the course of that journey I had, somehow, become a racist. To qualify as a racist you don’t have to go to the extreme of slurring, stereotyping or discriminating against people of another race. All you have to do, as I realized on that autumn morning in 1995, is feel completely disconnected from them.