Jimmy Breslin, the great newspaper columnist, once said to me, “I don’t give a f— what the headline is on any given day because every single day the biggest story in America is still race, race, race.”
That’s why you often found Breslin, a white working-class guy from Queens, climbing to the top floor of an inner-city tenement to cover victims of rape, murder, or police brutality involving people of color.
He brought to the pages of the varied New York daily newspapers across a half-century the voices of the silent minority, the city’s forgotten underclass.
Breslin learned as a young sportswriter that the best stories were in the loser’s locker room and so he found compelling tales of New York in places where residents seldom felt triumphant. He brought with him a brilliant eye for detail, an ear finetuned to the idiom of the street, and a fearless tenacity of shouting truth to power.
Breslin, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his tireless work, would have been all over the story of George Floyd and how that murderous cop’s knee on his neck took away the breath of the nation and the world. Endless protests have followed, cops have been indicted for murder and assault, the police department in Minneapolis was blown up to start anew, laws changed in Albany that will remove the cloak of secrecy from the records of abusive cops.
Breslin was right. No matter what else was on page one every single day the biggest story was race, race, race.
Now race is page one every single day.
What Bigotry Feels Like
No white person will ever know what it feels like to see the world from inside of black skin. I have a fair idea what bigotry feels like as my parents suffered sectarian discrimination as members of the Catholic minority in predominantly Protestant Belfast in Northern Ireland where the Irish Civil Rights movement was fashioned after the Freedom Marches of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
When I was growing up in a Brooklyn tenement, my mother never allowed us to bring the racist slurs of the street past her door. It would have been answered with a wet dishrag lashing across your arm. She was a huge fan of King and I remember her weeping watching TV news footage of racist Southern cops siccing German Shepherds on civil rights protestors.
She told me that British soldiers and members of the Belfast cops, known as the Royal Ulster Constabulary, had used dogs on Irish Catholics protesting for jobs or better housing when she was a child.
Her Catholic school was burned down by Protestant mobs, her brother was often beaten by Protestant teen gangs for refusing to curse the Pope in Rome and the Virgin Mary. My mother had to ride to a new school in an armored vehicle often pelted with rocks.
She came to America escaping that awful bigotry and fell in love with her new country but was soon saddened by the plight of what were then called negroes or colored people.
As kids, we listened to her lessons on the evils of bigotry. I understood them better, when, as a kid, I had a big brother who became a reporter at the New York Post for which he’d covered a fighter from Brooklyn named Floyd Patterson, trained by a boxing genius named Cus D’Amato. It thrilled my mother when she learned that Patterson was a practicing Catholic and after he got knocked out by a big Swede named Ingemar Johansson in 1959, my mother wrote him a letter saying she was doing novenas for him, praying for him in his rematch.
Patterson called my mother and told her when he regained his title the first place he was going to visit was our apartment. He also invited my brother Brian, John and I for weekend at his training camp in the Catskills to watch him train. It was an amazing experience, running roadwork with Patterson in the dawn, watching him train and spar. We joined him for big meals.
On Sunday he took us to mass, standing in the back near the poor box which he thought a local thief had his eye on.
When I got to school that Monday, I bragged about my weekend. I never forgot one kid named Paul who said, “Bet you a quarter the white guy will knock out the N-word again.”
That word that I’d heard before never sounded more ugly or offensive because he was talking about a truly great man who’d treated three tenement kids like royalty at his training camp. It upset me because he hated Floyd Patterson because of the color of his skin.
I felt like hitting Paul with one of a few combinations Floyd had taught us. Instead I bet him.
When Floyd Patterson knocked out Ingemar Johansson on June 20, 1960 to become the first heavyweight to ever regain his title, he kept his word and drove his Lincoln Continental to our apartment house in Brooklyn where my mom gave him lunch and presented him with a victory cake.
The whole neighborhood poured out to shake hands and get autographs and take pictures with the new world heavyweight champion from Brooklyn.
No one called him the N-word.
I couldn’t wait to get to school on Monday where I retrieved my quarter from Paul the bigot who had nothing to else to say.
A few years later we moved to a housing project in Staten Island and when we told certain people where we lived they’d remark, “With the N-words?” They regarded us as second-class citizens.
And we were white.
The next time I felt personally ashamed of the scourge of race, race, race was in the late-1980s when I worked late editing a New York Newsday column with my city editor, Hap Hairston, a brilliant, talented journalist who would later be portrayed on Broadway by Courtney B. Vance in Nora Ephron’s play “Lucky Guy” starring Tom Hanks.
We left the building in Manhattan and like any two ink stained wretches after deadline we were going for a drink. “Go get us a cab,” Hap said.
“C’mon we’ll hail one together.”
“You get it. And then I’ll get in.”
I said, “What? Why?”
“Because they won’t stop if I’m with you, okay. Because I’m black, man.”
The guy had just edited my column, put out another daily edition of a big city newspaper, and he couldn’t get a yellow cab because he was a black man.
I was ashamed that I had to make him explain it to me, but he had to because even though I’d grown up poor, lived in a housing project, and covered stories in every black neighborhood of New York, I had absolutely no idea what it felt like to view the world through a black man’s eyes.
This month, in the aftermath of the George Floyd murder by a white cop, which has turned the country inside out, those incidents about race in my life bubbled to the surface.
Jimmy Breslin was right.
I’d covered thousands of stories on thousands of topics across 40-odd years of writing newspaper columns, but the biggest story in America is still race, race, race.