When I first started teaching in the mid l960s the number of African American and Latino students in my various colleges — Vassar, CCNY, Hunter — could be counted on the fingers of one hand. One of the two at Vassar told me that a Vassar interviewer had told her she would not be happy there — she was the daughter of a prominent civil rights figure. She was not happy because she was so isolated with only one other African American among some 1,700 Vassar students. The same was the case with the two CUNY (City University of NY) colleges cited. In all my classes I had one African American — a male nurse — and two Latinos — one from a wealthy Latin American family.

All this changed when CUNY opened its doors in 1970 to minorities who until then had been routinely told by high school advisors that they were not college material and should look for jobs such as pushing wagons around the garment district.

That year of opening happened to be my first of many rich years for me at Brooklyn College. Teaching was what I loved and I was good at it and prepared to assist our minority students, as I had lived and worked in West Harlem — one of the few whites doing so. Brooklyn at that time had two African Americans working in other than physical labor jobs — an assistant dean and our philosophy department secretary, Frances Morton, who had a B.A. degree herself. When a hundred or more apprehensive African American students arrived at the college that year, she became their primary advisor and a sort of mother figure. Within two or three years these students had gained the confidence to go it alone, but Frances was a key bridge to self-confidence for many of them.

Over the years I had students from every conceivable part of the globe as well as our own diverse ones — Brooklyn was what was known as a point of entry college. It made for incredibly rich classes in my special fields — social/political/legal philosophy — and my own interests in foreign affairs — a career that I had considered but rejected.

However, certainly until I retired in 2007 my African American male students reported both their difficulties in obtaining jobs for which they were qualified and the frequent harassment that they experienced from our NYPD officers whenever they were out after dark, e.g. returning home from an evening class. There had been some gain, as police were no longer routinely shooting African Americans who offended them as had been the case when we had been living in Harlem in the early 1960s. A typical tactic would be to shoot some teen and then throw down a gun by the body and claim self-defense. Such only happens rarely now. Most of our police are not residents of NYC proper and so come to us as an alien force somewhat like our soldiers today in Afghanistan.

We now frequently see successful minorities both as elected representatives and TV interviewers and commentators and such. I fear that these success stories as much as anything antagonize whites who fear that they are being left out and replaced by minorities. Such must be a part of the explanation of the resentment of Obama.

Also lost from sight are the many minority people living in poverty with little hope of escaping it who end up committing crimes as teens that get them jailed — sometimes for life. Our jails are populated by a majority of minorities and we have the highest percentage of jailed persons of any of our comparable democracies — a massive number costing each far more annually than a year of studies in one of our most expensive colleges. What a waste! It is those who are invisible victims of racism that bother me most personally. Our general public simply is not aware of these people being lost in our cruel economy and defeated by our lingering racism.

What do you think?

“A war is just if there is no alternative, and the resort to arms is legitimate if they represent your last hope.” (Livy cited by Machiavelli)

Ed Kent 212-665-8535 (voice mail only) [blind copies]

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