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A Conversation About Race, Fear and Connection

Paul Gross

In the wake of recent events, many speak about the need for conversations about race. In our country, the implications of race are a moral issue, a humanitarian issue, a justice issue and, yes, a medical issue. (One need only examine how racial categorization affects rates of death.) But what would this conversation about race look like?

Today, Pulse’s editor provides one offering. In August, we’ll invite all Pulse readers to join in with their stories, when Race will be the theme of More Voices.

I grew up in Stuyvesant Town, a middle-class housing development just north of Fourteenth Street on the east side of Manhattan. Built after World War II, Stuyvesant Town was a leafy and desirable place to live. There was a long waiting list to get in, and priority was given to World War II veterans, like my father.

Although we think of New York City as a bastion of multiculturalism, African-American veterans were not allowed in Stuyvesant Town–a policy upheld by the courts until the mid-1960s.

When I was a boy, black families hoping to live in Stuyvesant Town were directed to a separate-but-equal housing project in Harlem. This policy had a practical impact on how I viewed African-Americans, which was with some degree of suspicion. If I saw a dark-skinned man wandering through Stuyvesant Town, I’d wonder, uneasily, what he was doing there and what he might be up to.

My fears weren’t confined to African-Americans. I was also uneasy about Hispanics. Fourteenth Street separated Stuyvesant Town from a neighborhood I was afraid to venture into. Now, of course, that area is a quintessentially hip neighborhood known as the East Village. At that time, however, the aging buildings were occupied by recent immigrants from Puerto Rico. “There’s a lot of PR there,” I would hear grownups say, a phrase that implied poverty, lawlessness and menace.

As it happened, my own father was from Cuba, and our Spanish-speaking relatives visited us regularly. I suppose I might have viewed Puerto Ricans as kin, but not so, probably because my father didn’t. From him I picked up that they were different somehow, and that my dad identified himself first and foremost as an English-speaking mainland American.

As I came of age, I read a lot and came to believe that we–as individuals and as a nation–needed to rise above our prejudices, to find the humanity that connects us all. At the same time, I felt aware of my own lingering sense of unease around people who were different from me.

In my twenties I moved into a northern Manhattan neighborhood called Inwood. I remember one conversation with a neighbor, a friendly Puerto Rican mother of two. She began to talk about Dominicans, the next wave of Caribbean immigrants, who now occupied the neighboring streets.

“Dominicans?” she said, shaking her head. “They’re crazy.”

At the time, I didn’t know any Dominicans, so I had to wonder whether she knew something that I didn’t. Or could it be that she was just doing what countless immigrants before her have done–turning with alarm upon the next group to touch our shores? Still, her words stayed with me.

I now work as a family physician in the Bronx, taking care of all the people I used to be frightened of. Many, if not most, of my patients happen to be Dominicans. Many others are Puerto Ricans and African-Americans.

Why do I find this work particularly gratifying?

I think of my two daughters. When they were little, they were scared to go down the big corkscrew slide at the water park. Then, one summer, something clicked. They’d gotten older. They were less fearful. And–wow!–wasn’t it fun to do something that used to terrify you?

There’s something thrilling about being liberated from a fear. For instance, to meet Dominicans and discover that not only are they not crazy, they’re actually as charming and likable as, well, as any other nationality you might name. What better sensation than feeling nameless apprehension give way to relief and pleasure?

Because I had Cuban grandparents, Cuban uncles and a Cuban aunt, I feel as if the chasm between me and my Dominican and Puerto Rican patients is not huge. I have muscle memory of having known, intimately, relatives who look and sound similar to them.

With my African-American patients, it’s a little different. I don’t have such memories. All I have are bits of knowledge gleaned from books, from college courses, from magazine articles, from autobiographies, that convey to me how large the chasm is between my life experience and theirs.

For that reason, I feel profound joy when a patient who is African-American looks me in the eye with a relaxed smile that says, “I trust you.” Isn’t it amazing, I want to say, that in spite of everything, here we are, feeling connected with one another.

At the same time, I’ve come to understand the limits of this connection.

About two decades ago, I cared for Andre, an African-American boy a few months younger than my first daughter. As he grew, I couldn’t help but compare his progress with Cara’s. At age six, he was reading as well as she was. He was bright and active.

At some point, the active part started getting in the way. Andre had trouble controlling his impulses. He became disruptive in school. His working mother tried heroically to get him the help he needed. She fought the public-school system to get him into a class that could address his needs. She brought him to doctor appointments. And when psychiatrists recommended pills, she medicated him even as these pills caused enormous weight gain.

Throughout, Andre remained an affectionate kid who would throw his arms around me (“Doctor Gross!”) when he came to our health center. He was exuberant and irrepressible. I liked him, even as I reacted with dismay to his mom’s recounting of his escapades in school (He hit the teacher?).

Andre’s dad came in for an appointment when he was released from jail–a bright, engaging young man. If he’d only had some decent opportunities, I thought at the time, he could have been somebody.

I left that health center when Andre was about thirteen. I wish I could say that I stayed in touch. I wish I could say that, when I left, I was hopeful about his chances.

A few months ago, I Googled Andre’s name and learned that he’s in prison. It gets worse. When he was sixteen, Andre pleaded guilty to killing a cab driver. Oh my god.

I felt heartbroken.

I’m looking at Andre’s face right now, online, as he stares back from my computer screen. I’m looking at a mug shot, but seeing an eleven-year-old boy. That boy is shouting, “Doctor Gross!” He’s flinging his arms around my waist, his head pressed against my chest.

I can’t help but feel that I’ve participated in playing out some awful legacy. Even while I was caring for Andre, I had some sense that we–his mom, his family and I–were up against something bigger than ourselves: a challenging child, yes, but also a system that required superhuman struggle for his mother to get the help he needed, help that was still never enough, and a society that is willing to tolerate a child’s dwindling chances for success when that child is of color.

Looking back, I have to wonder whether I myself didn’t succumb to those limited expectations.

If Andre had grown up white, in a middle-class home, would his fate have been very different? Without a doubt. My daughters have friends who have suffered difficult circumstances and emotional volatility, who have received medication and counseling. No one would dream of giving up on them. They’ve all gotten whatever help it took. They’ve graduated from college. Prison was not remotely on their menu of possibilities.

My conversation about race has to do with the joys of connecting with the other–the person you grew up fearing. Sadly, it also has to do with recognizing that, however gratifying my connection with Andre, and however sincere my attempts to give him good medical care, these were not enough to protect him from society’s collective fatalism when we had the chance to steer him out of harm’s way.

And, sadly, I’m aware that I may have shared in that fatalism.

How much does race play into Andre’s story? Is it ten percent? Twenty-five? Fifty? Ninety?

I don’t know. But whatever the amount, I believe that it made all the difference.

About the author:

Paul Gross is editor of Pulse.

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey