With whom do you identify? And with whom not? It’s pretty hard to mention race these days without an avalanche of woe. The topic is so fraught, to use a current, loathsome term, that even to refer to it (or gender issues, too) is to risk being branded a bigot or boor. 

This article derives from the recent uptick in anti-Asian sentiment here in the U.S.A. We all know lots of careless racist myths: that Blacks are lazy, Jews are greedy, and the Irish drink too much. So, having always regarded Asian Americans as well-behaved, hard working people who exemplified discipline, politeness, and even respect for tradition – I find the current hatred a surprise. (Of course, my vague approval of this group must be a prejudice as well.) 

A lot of people choose to feel superior to those with whom they don’t identify. Perhaps that’s natural. Still, bigotry seems like a place where those who yearn for self-esteem take refuge from their own self-doubt and shame; a shabby mental neighborhood equivalent to the dirty space behind the kitchen cabinets where only bugs and rodents congregate. 

With new reports of violence against Asian-Americans, I felt impelled to watch some videos. In the first two, small Asian people – a well-dressed man in the New York subway and an old lady on a city sidewalk somewhere – were viciously assaulted by large black men. Somehow, that rattled me. I had simply assumed that the racist assailants were white. Another prejudice, I guess.

As you can tell from my exotic name, I’m part of a minority. (In Hebrew, Levowitz translates: O’Rourke.) Raised during the 1940’s, before anyone knew whether Hitler would triumph or not, I had some vague awareness of being endangered, but only in a very abstract way. I also felt and still maintain a notion that my ethnic group identifies with and cares about other “outsiders.” We disadvantaged scum should stick together, don’tchya think?

Some people find that view naive: “No one’s more nasty to the powerless than others near the bottom of the hole.” The poor and hopeless rural whites down South adored the blacks, who gave them someone to look down upon. And then, of course, presumably, the blacks were glad to have a dog or Chinaman on whom to spit when they were feeling down.

It may be somewhat “normal” to regard oneself as better than whoever else there is, but normal isn’t always good enough. What little progress has been made with women’s rights around the world occurs in times of relative prosperity and ease, when men feel more secure and generous. 

Hmm. Looking Out For Number One – the universal creed.

In the early 1960s, right after college, my wife and I sold what we owned, booked passage to Morocco on a Yugoslavian freighter, and settled in Tangier for several months. We were intrigued by Berber tribesmen living on the beach, with their djalabas, tattooed faces, and long caravans. We noticed that the women and the animals walked first, ten yards ahead, with the men, on their camels, behind. We had mistakenly presumed (or maybe read) that patriarchs always went first, while the women and herds trailed behind. We asked the locals, who confirmed, “Yeah, that was true for centuries, until the recent war. But now the women must walk first, in case of unexploded landmines hidden in the sand.” 

Hmm. Chivalry connotes civility, “especially that of a man toward women.” The word is derived from cheval – that’s the French word for horse. Perhaps the gawky camel stirs less noble sentiments.