Ken Solin remembers his encounters with racism as he moved to various cities.
I grew up in Medford, a few miles outside of Boston, in the mid 50s and 60s. Back then it was a racially mixed, blue-collar town, and I had Italian, Jewish, and, what at the time were referred to as Negro, friends. My parents never allowed any racial epithets in our home and all of my friends were always welcome there. While there were many schoolyard fights, none was racially motivated.
My first real awareness of racial difference began with the Civil Rights movement when I was in my teens. I was shocked to discover that African Americans couldn’t vote in some places in the South and initially refused to believe such nonsense was even possible. I’d raised my glass of milk to toast a photograph of President Eisenhower on television each day at lunch time along with Big Brother Bob Emery while “Hail to the Chief” played in the background. This was America, right? The idea of different races hadn’t even existed to me, yet. Everybody was supposed to be able to vote.
After high school, I went off to college in Madison, New Jersey, a white, upper-crust sort of town. The first week of school, along with many of the students, I protested in front of a barber shop because the owner refused to cut the hair of an African exchange student. It was clear from his statements that the barber was a racist but, in truth, he’d never cut a black man’s hair and just didn’t know how. He didn’t seem anxious to learn.
When I came home from college on breaks, racism was alive and well in Boston. I saw white mothers on television, screaming at Ted Kennedy, whose kids were in private school, about busing their kids to schools in black neighborhoods. “Bus yaw kids, Teddy,” one summed it up.
In 1972, as a young college grad with a wife and son, I bought my first home in North Plainfield, New Jersey. My father-in-law, who lived nearby, told me that less than 20 years before, there had been a prominent sign in my neighborhood that read, “No Jews, No Dogs, No Niggers.” He was Jewish, and having to walk past that sign every day for decades left him deeply hurt and humiliated.
The fact that, as Jews, my young family was welcomed to the neighborhood—as far as we could tell—seemed like racial progress. That was until my neighbor beckoned to me over the fence shortly after we moved in. He was clearly disturbed, angry, and very anxious. When I asked him what was wrong, he said that a black family was trying to buy a house in the neighborhood and that we all needed to band together to stop them. I was so stunned that I couldn’t speak at first. This was beyond outrageous—all that was missing was a hooded white sheet. “Go fuck yourself,” I finally said. The black family moved in and I never spoke to my neighbor again.
After college and a few years in the New York metro area, I moved to Northern California, right over the Golden Gate Bridge. I bought a small cottage two blocks from downtown Mill Valley, a charming little town at the foot of Mount Tamalpais, named by the Miwok Indians who’d once inhabited the area.
The Miwok were long gone, though, and Mill Valley was almost totally white. I ran a business and raised my sons in this privileged setting, understanding that my economic success was the primary source of that privilege. There was a predominantly black housing project in a nearby town, though, and I tutored in an after-school program there for several years. I thought I might’ve been making some kind of difference, whatever and however small it was.
I still live in Mill Valley. Some years ago, when my primary-care physician bit into the concierge physician apple, I decided to find another doctor rather than pay to have him on call. Few local physicians were accepting new patients, but luckily I found and was accepted by a 42-year-old doctor who had graduated from UCLA with honors.
I scheduled my annual physical exam for the next week and was stunned when the door to Dr. Robinson’s office opened and a tall, thin, black man invited me in. “Why am I so surprised?” I asked myself, ashamed of my initial reaction. “I can’t just take a stand against racism; I have to keep walking the walk.”
After giving me a thorough physical, Dr. Robinson and I talked for a while about living in Marin. He told me that he’d grown up in the same projects I’d tutored in but, unlike many of the kids who were raised there, he had a father at home who believed in and supported his son’s dream to go to medical school.
Dr. Robinson is still my physician and, at sixty-six years old, I’ve put one of the most important aspects of my life—my health—into a black man’s hands.