When I was young, I had an 11-letter Polish surname. It was an embarrassing, somewhat unpronounceable, name for me growing up, especially during teenage years because schoolteachers stammered to say it.
That was also the time that Polish jokes were rampant throughout the country. I was third-generation, and my grandparents had tried hard to Americanize, as did my American parents. But kids in school laughed and giggled at my name at times.
That was then, and that wasn't racism; it was some Americans putting down people from somewhere else — although they, too, had grandparents from elsewhere, but not with 11-letter last names.
But this is now, and while racism has always simmered in this country, and periodically ignited, it erupted again this past week after President Trump exploded about the "Squad" of four in his Sunday tweets, telling them to "go back where they came from." The implication of our president telling Americans to "go back" is clear: He is giving white Americans not-so-tacit permission to label and discriminate against others.
And while this is a countrywide concern, I started thinking about how we are faring locally with this problem.
For one thing, Palo Alto's population has changed. We have significantly more Asians in town — 31 percent (and 61 percent white) of our 67,000-plus population, according to the U.S. Census American Community Survey estimates. We also have a mixture of religions in our community, including Muslims, Jews, Christians and others.
Racial and religious discrimination is occurring, as a recent Weekly blog post described about an area restaurant owner who suffered because of anti-Islam comments. I suspect there's more discrimination than we realize; victims frequently suffer in silence. And because I am white, I am unsure about what actually is occurring to those with a different skin color or heritage. But I would like to sit down with folks and hear about it.
Back in the 1980s, I was president of the local organization Midpeninsula Citizens for Fair Housing, organized to help ensure that all races, in those days particularly blacks, have access to all housing in the Palo Alto area. We received complaints from people of color who felt they had been discriminated against in a rental, and, in response, we sent testers out to see whether overt discrimination was occurring.
If a qualified black couple wanted to rent but was told "the apartment is no longer available" or whatever, we would send a comparable white couple to seek rental, and if they were immediately accepted, we assumed there may have been some discrimination.
We would test and retest a property to make sure we were correct. If we thought we were right, a team of lawyers took it from there and often succeeded in proving discrimination. We felt we had helped make Palo Alto and neighboring communities more comfortable for all people of color to achieve rentals and home-buying here.
I think Palo Alto has done well — not only historically, but also currently — in achieving racial diversity and equality in our community. Neighborhoods are more diverse — for example, I have Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, Hispanic and Filipino neighbors on my block. And friends of mine likewise note that their neighborhoods have become more diverse.
I walk downtown and see at lunchtime workers of all races in local restaurants. I am particularly proud because we are such an affluent city, and if we can do it, it can happen elsewhere. I say that because some people assume affluence equates to discrimination.
With this country now whetted by Trump's "permission" to discriminate against others and claim white superiority, I can't even predict what will happen locally or nationally. I know discrimination begets more discrimination. And while this is a liberal area, dealing with racism has a lot of fragile shards that need to constantly be glued together to work.
This is also a two-way street. We all have to try to be more inclusive — reaching out beyond our racial or ethnic clusters, extending trust to those people outside of our own.
We need to grapple with racism now, not later. We should be on the alert, given the national pro-racism mood and the unwillingness of some Americans to recognize that this is even an issue.
One way to handle this complex issue is to talk as a community about potential or existing racism. Maybe it's time for Palo Alto's Human Relations Commission to, once again, get involved — through research and interviews with various races and ethnic groups and getting some hard data to see if discrimination is occurring.
Maybe it's time for the Palo Alto City Council — and other city councils on the Midpeninsula — to just check things out to see if there is an emerging problem.
Or maybe it's time for us to talk with one another, neighbor to neighbor.
It's easier to look into this issue now — before the "OK to be a racist" attitude oozes deeper into our communities.