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We must still be our brothers' keeper, no matter our race

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© St. Petersburg Times,
published July 3, 2001

On June 20, a vacationing couple in their 70s was robbed and brutally beaten at a Tampa motel. They described their assailant as a black man, 25 to 35 years old, about 5 feet 10.

I didn't do it.

I passed 35 too many years ago, 5 feet 10 before high school.

Some of my acquaintances fit the description, but I truly don't believe any of them did it either.

Still, on the day the couple's battered faces were shown on television, a caller left me this message:

"My name is Jack Brami. Just reading an article of yours, as I do when you write them. This one was regarding all the . . . how you and Mr. Maxwell chuckle at your morning hate mail and hate calls, etc.

"Well, ah, just wondering . . . Just saw the face of that woman who got beat in Tampa by the tall black man, the two tourists.

"You know there's, ah, nobody but nobody in the United States, well, except the American Indian, who has suffered a holocaust like black people. But you have got your revenge. Believe me, your people have made the major cities of this country a living hell.

"I never thought that I would ever say that because I wasn't raised to hate anybody. And I don't hate.

"But it's just amazing how you all just sweep the crime and the violence in your community under the rug. And . . . just . . . You know, it's just like it doesn't happen.

"And, oh boy, I tell you, there really are two Americas, and it's a shame.

"Well, that's all I have to say, so you can use this one to chuckle over with Mr. Maxwell on this one, too.

"Have a good laugh over it. Thank you."

* * *

The voice, belonging to Jack Brami of New Port Richey, seemed on the verge of cracking near the end. Some combination of passion and anger, I suppose.

I listened to it again. And again. I called my colleague Bill Maxwell over and let him listen to it.

Neither of us chuckled.

This was not the typical name-calling missive I get from people who are just a sheet short of being KKK, people who are probably stymied by the question, "Paper or plastic?" and who don't sign their names because they're ashamed of their thoughts, or unsure of the spelling.

These were the exasperated words of a man who, after deliberation, had reached unpleasant conclusions, which for some reason he felt compelled to share with me.

I found his thought process -- the confluence of unrelated events he jumbled together -- confusing, perhaps even confused, but fascinating. It was too long a stretch for me to go from the column I had written decrying hate mail, to a couple being robbed and beaten, to street crime being revenge for slavery, to somehow, my being to blame for it all.

My first thought was to get some so-called expert to interpret the significance of the message. That's a common way for journalists to do things. There are even people who pay to have their names on "expert" lists. But I refused to dignify such idiocy.

I decided that between Jack Brami and me, we could figure out what he meant.

So I called him. Got his answering machine and was a little surprised to hear his recorded message, in his voice, end with a Spanish version.

Then his wife picked up the phone. She is Colombian and unsure of her English.

Then Mr. Brami, who describes himself as a Latino Jew, and I talked for about a half-hour.

Isn't it funny how distant demons become regular people after they exchange a few words?

"I'm going to make a statement you're going to laugh at," he warned. "I am not a racist."

He was right. I laughed. That claim has usually been the preamble to some of the most racist stuff I've ever heard, as if disavowing the label makes anything you say okay. How could it be racist if you've made it clear you're not a racist, right?

He made a distinction between white people who are prejudiced against black people based on what they are and those whose prejudice arises from what they do. He has been privy to what both groups have to say "when black folks are not around."

He puts himself in the second group.

"There are a lot of people like me who are alienated by African-Americans," he said. Some at the other extreme say they wish a race war would break out. His wife even gives his hand a tighter squeeze when they approach young black men who are dressed a certain way.

He acknowledged that serial killers, sex offenders and white-collar criminals almost exclusively seem to be white, but says street crime is the province of blacks.

I suggested that part of his thinking may result from the way he looks at crime. When the villain is black, it's read as "they" did it. When he's white, "that individual" did it. The difference in perception takes thoughts in much different directions. In the first, criminality becomes a trait of the group; the second means only that there are deviant criminals in "our" group.

I told Brami his message seemed to blame me for the couple's beating.

"In a sense I do," he said. "Not only do I blame you, but all the other responsible people in the black community."

You need to take responsibility for teaching young people higher moral standards and how to live without resorting to destructive behavior, he said. "African-Americans say white people are in denial about racism. To some degree that's probably true. But there's no one who is more in denial than African-Americans. In a sense, it's like you condone (the street crime)."

"Mr. Brami," I said, "I'm always hearing that we're all Americans -- not African-Americans. Why do you keep saying "your people' and "your community' and saying that we should fix our problems? We are all Americans. It's your people and your community, too. Aren't you just as responsible for fixing the problems as I am?"

"Touche," he said.

Mr. Brami acknowledged that racial discrimination happens, that he has witnessed it and not said anything about it. He related that he was talking with a saleswoman in a Miami store when she suddenly excused herself to go over and rudely ask a black teenager "What do you want?"

"He could have been a valedictorian, a good kid," he said. But Brami didn't let the saleswoman know he disapproved of her behavior.

As an American, he was derelict in his duty. We are all responsible for each other's behavior, responsible for bringing the country as close to its ideals as we can.

We cannot do that with our silence.

His call to me was a start. Our conversation, in an immeasurable way, made this a better country.

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