Dear Readers of Broadway Fillmore Alive,
My name is Jeannine Pitas. I’m a Polish-American Western New York native and the great-great-great niece of the founder of Saint Stanislaus, the “Mother Church” of Buffalo’s Polish-American community. For the past five years I’ve lived a twelve-hour drive from Buffalo, teaching at a small college in Dubuque, Iowa. For the past two months I’ve been back in my childhood home in Cheektowaga, doing my best to accompany my elderly parents through the COVID-19 crisis.
I’ve decided to write this post as a letter for a few reasons. One is to make it clear what you probably already know – what I am about to say represents my views, not necessarily those of all contributors to this blog. But probably the biggest is that letters were among the first things I ever learned to write, and to this day I find them comforting when I’m in a bad mood. And at this moment I am in quite a bad mood… Waking up to see international headlines mentioning violence in your relatively small hometown doesn’t make for a particularly good start to the day.
It’s a little strange writing a letter and not knowing exactly whom I’m writing to. The Internet is a big place. Looking at this site, it often seems that most BFA readers are other Polish-Americans, like me. I suspect that only a small percentage of them actually live in the neighborhood this blog is dedicated to – a diverse neighborhood with a complex history. In the nineteenth and first part of the twentieth century, when my uncles John and Alexander Pitass founded and built up St. Stanislaus, it was predominantly Polish. Later, as more and more African Americans moved in, more and more Polish Americans participated in the mass “white flight” to the suburbs. And today, a growing Middle Eastern and South Asian community is again changing the fabric of the neighborhood; some of the old churches have been converted into mosques.
Five years ago, soon before I started writing for this blog, I had an idea. I wanted to make a documentary film about the history of racism in Buffalo. We have, after all, the unfortunate distinction of being one of the most segregated cities in the United States. I had grown up with racism, not even realizing the extent of its reach until much later in my life (wasn’t it just normal for a white person to go to school with mostly white students and only white teachers? And if all the African-American students in the school chose to sit together in the school cafeteria at lunchtime, surely that choice had nothing to do with me!)
At the time I was toying with this documentary idea, the Black Lives Matter movement had already started in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death, and then Michael Brown’s, and then Eric Garner’s and Tamir Rice’s and Freddie Gray’s, among so many others across the United States. It was time, I believed, to talk about the history of racism in this Buffalo and Western New York community.
But when I spoke to various Buffalonians about my idea, I got a lukewarm response from people of different backgrounds. “You have to be careful how you present things here in Buffalo,” said one artist I’d hope to interview. “People in Buffalo can be sensitive, especially if they see you as an outsider passing a judgment.” As for my fellow Polish-Americans, many were quick to jump to a defensive posture, denying the existence of racism here. (Then what was I supposed to make, I wondered, of the performance I’d just attended at a new theatre in the predominantly non-white Broadway Fillmore neighborhood…a performance where all the actors and vast majority of audience members were white?)
In any case, I don’t know a thing about the technical aspects of film. And I’d just signed a contract to move to the Midwest. So, like so many good or not so good ideas, I put the project aside.
But I couldn’t put aside the questions, the constant feeling that something was drastically wrong with our society. I encountered it when I started teaching at a Midwestern college that draws many students from the impoverished, violence-ridden areas of Chicago. In essays, in class discussions about the books we were reading, in one-on-one conversations, I heard the stories. Gang violence, poverty, jail time for small crimes, fear of the police. Experiences I’d never had to think about were common for my students.
European-Americans in the United States need to have a hard reckoning with racism. And police brutality. And economic disparity, gross inequality of opportunity from early childhood on, and poverty, and the school-to-prison pipeline, and the flagrant discrimination written into our drug laws, and so much more. As Ibram X. Kendi recently wrote in The Atlantic, there are many questions that of us should be asking:
Americans should be asking: Why are so many unarmed black people being killed by police while armed white people are simply arrested? Why are officials addressing violent crime in poorer neighborhoods by adding more police instead of more jobs? Why are black (and Latino) people during this pandemic less likely to be working from home; less likely to be insured; more likely to live in trauma-care deserts, lacking access to advanced emergency care; and more likely to live in polluted neighborhoods?
The reason so few European-Americans ask these questions, Kendi argues, is a racism so deeply ingrained in our society that we are not even aware of it. Indeed, it is the water we swim in, the air we breathe, the basis of our society’s structure.
But what those of us who benefit from a system we see as normal do not realize how much we’ve depended on the labor and sufferings of others who aren’t so lucky. In his seminal study A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn seeks to foreground the stories of underrepresented voices, tracing the history of American racism from 1619 onwards. “There is not a country in world history in which racism has been more important, for so long a time, as the United States. And the problem of the ‘color line,’ as W.E.B. Du Bois puts it, is still with us […] How does it start? – and an even more urgent question: How might it end?” Zinn asks on page 23, and then seeks to answer that question throughout the whole 700-page volume. Speaking of the situation of prisons in the late 1960’s, he states
The prisons in the United States had long been an extreme reflection of the American system itself: the stark life differences between rich and poor, the racism, the use of victims against one another, the lack of resources of the underclass to speak out, the endless “reforms” that changed little. Dostoevski once said, “The degree of civilization in a society can be judged by entering its prisons.” It has long been true, and prisoners knew this better than anyone, that the poorer you were the more likely you were to end up in jail. This was not just because the poor committed more crimes. In fact, they did. The rich did not have to commit crimes to get what they wanted; the laws were on their side, But when the rich did commit crimes, they often were not prosecuted, and if they were, they could get out on bail, hire clever lawyers, get better treatment from judges. Somehow, the jails ended up full of poor black people (516).
European-Americans need to take another look at our country’s history. As a child and adolescent growing up in those mostly-white schools, I learned about slavery and Jim Crow…but not that the sexual abuse of women was a regular part of slavery, or that lynchings were commonplace in the US through my grandparents’ adulthood and my parents’ childhoods. It wasn’t until graduate school – through a chance conversation with a theater professor at a party – that I learned about the racist phenomenon of blackface, which popped up just two years ago on my own college campus. And it has only been very recently that I’ve realized how, while constantly striving to not be bigoted myself, I benefit from a racist society. If I’m driving down a highway and see police lights flashing behind me, I certainly feel anxious. But I do not fear for my life.
I hope that in writing this letter I am mostly preaching to the choir. But for so long, I have encountered a defensiveness in many of my fellow European-Americans whenever race is mentioned. Among the people I know, I am hearing again and again that George Floyd had a criminal record (which is true, but does that mean he deserved to die?) I hear that violent protesters should not be allowed to destroy cities (but does that mean the government should be supported in restoring “law and order” through force, without investigating or addressing the root causes of such violence?)
A much respected friend and mentor of mine who is watching this story unfold from Canada commented, “The worst thing that could happen right now would be for the US to go back to normal.” This, to me, is completely true. Like everyone else I want peace to be restored as quickly as possible. But as Pope Paul VI famously asserted, “If you want peace, work for justice.”
No justice, no peace.