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Approach Race One Person at a Time

Approach Race One Person at a Time

By Salena Zito - December 8, 2014

Carnisa Chatman still refers to her tomato sauce as “gravy,” never douses pasta with it (instead, she respects the Old World tradition of keeping the two separate when serving and eating), and considers herself Italian despite not having a drop of Roman blood in her veins.

She learned all of that in my mother's kitchen, when our families lived across the street from each other.

“Most importantly, I learned we are our brother's keeper,” she said of spending time with my family.

The Chatman family moved across from us in 1969; the Rev. Dudley Chatman, a respected and sought-after minister, brought a wife and five wonderful, curious, respectful children — the first black family in the neighborhood.

Race in Pittsburgh, as in many industrial cities, was volatile in 1969. Society was changing rapidly for whites and blacks and, as with most change, some people reacted with fear, others with anger, and many with no brains at all.

In typically horrible timing, government-enforced integration coincided with Lyndon Johnson's “Great Society,” which bulldozed iconic ethnic neighborhoods — tearing apart lifelong experiences, communities and ways of life — in favor of public housing.

It was supposed to compensate for past injustices but it merely punished one community to make amends to another.

The result was distrust and fear.

Thanks to my parents, the Chatmans weren't considered “black people.” They were just new neighbors, and we did what we always did when someone new moved onto the block — baked chocolate-chip cookies and delivered those to their home.

“Your mom and dad were the greatest. They broke the color barrier for our neighborhood,” Carnisa said, recalling my mother coming to her house with a tray of cookies and three kids under the age of 9.

Three months later — after spending our days jumping rope, playing tag and all of the other things that 9-year-old girls do — a brick shattered the Chatmans' front window; another smashed their car's windshield, and the perpetrators, a couple of teenage boys, tried to burn a cross on the lawn.

“Your dad chased those young teens ... he caught all of them, single-handedly, and held them for the police,” Carnisa recalled. “I remember him telling them how ashamed he was of them.”

It was a life-changing event for Carnisa and her family: “My dad was out of town preaching when all of this happened. Thank God for your dad, who made us feel safe. I will never forget him.”

In 1969 my father already had spent a year building a new family home that he designed, several blocks from our Colby Street house; nearly four years passed before we moved in, because money was always tight and he built it on weekends, using reclaimed bricks and secondhand materials.

Despite the move, Carnisa and I remained friends; she repaid my father by sparing me a vicious beating during one of the riots that plagued our high school.

“There was a terrible riot going on and, in the midst of it, I watch Salena tip-toe from the physics lab into the girls' bathroom, which was the worst place to go during a riot,” she recalled.

“A group of black girls saw you go in and were waiting outside to jump you when you got out. ... Well, I told them not to touch you or I would report all of them,” Carnisa said.

At the end of the day, she waited to walk with me out of the school and to safety.

Today race is industrialized — a spectator sport driven by divisional politics, entitlement, false prophets, social media and white pundits with intellectually superior opinions who rarely have had a meaningful relationship with a person outside of their white inner circle.

We all impact each other's lives, usually most profoundly when no one is looking; we do it not for profit, for attention or a pat on the back, but because it is the right thing to do.

These days, both blacks and whites feel abandoned by Washington. So the solution to our nation's racial discourse should be handled by us individually, one person at a time — and not by exploiting bad deeds done by both sides that only further the hatred. 

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Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at szito@tribweb.com
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