Down These Mean Streets running head: problem analysis of racism

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Down These Mean Streets:

A Problem Analysis of Racism in America
Rachelle Christy

George Mason University

October 9, 2012

Professor Cynthia Peterson


Racism is an issue that has been prevalent in the United States for almost its entire history. With issues revolving around employment, social equality, educational opportunities and even family problems, racism remains an issue that needs modern attention. Author Piri Thomas chronicles his experience with racism in his memoir Down These Mean Streets. His account of growing up on the streets of Harlem in the 1960’s as Puerto Rican sheds great light on the magnitude of racial issues this country has and continues to face.

Racism is founded on the belief that some racial groups are more important and valuable than others. This is a dangerous idea that can further lead to the belief that the color of a person's skin and the personal influence of their culture determines the quality of their character, accomplishments and societal ability. Racial oppression has unfortunately, been a central and prevalent issue in the fabric of American history. Amanda Smith Barusch explains in her book Foundations of Social Policy: Social Justice in Human Perspective, that "The United States is the most ethnically diverse country in the world -- soon to be a nation with no clear racial majority. This diversity is a source of strength, vitality, and creativity" (Barusch, 2012). Although this may be the current perspective of many Americans, the journey and development of this country has and continues to be a serious political, economic and historical issue related to the difficulty surrounding racial oppression (Barusch, 2012). French political thinker, Alexis de Tocqueville, predicted upon observation that the United States would "experience a race war at some time in its future," and Barusch argues that Americans have "come close to fulfilling his prediction" (Barusch, 2012). The constant existence of ethnic and racial diversity in American society has led to a long and hard fought battle for racial equality. Traces of previous and modern forms of racism are evident in the areas of public policy, employment and economic opportunity, and within the social context of interpersonal interaction. While significant efforts for the abolishment of existing racism in the United States has been made, this country’s history of ignored deep-seeded racial conflict has allowed for modern forms of racism to develop despite various legislative and organizational efforts.

Author Piri Thomas chronicles intimately in his memoir Down These Mean Streets, his experience as a Puerto Rican-American growing up on the streets of Harlem; what he refers to as the Barrio. Thomas provides a detailed and realistic account of life as a “colored” boy and his struggle between identifying as a Puerto Rican while being labeled “black.” Thomas concludes with eventually accepting his identity as a Puerto Rican Moyeto or Negro, because of the dark complexion of his skin. Thomas refers to himself as Piri throughout the book and identifies his mother as a fair skinned Puerto Rican and his father as a dark skinned “Indian” Puerto Rican. Caught not only in the deep racial tensions of the 1960’s, Piri alienates himself from his own family as he feels separated from even them because of the comparison of his dark skin to that of his blanco siblings. During a heated discussion with his brother Jose, Piri insists, “Poppa’s got moyeto blood. I got it. Sis got it. James got it. And mah deah brudder, you-all got it! Dig it! It’s with us all the time...It’s a played-out lie about me --us-- being white” (Thomas, 1968, pg. 145). Thomas provides a glance into the experiences of African Americans during the Civil Rights movement, but primarily chronicles the seemingly similar experience had by many of the existing non-white racial groups of the time.

Piri grows up involved in a life ruled by his mission to find social and personal acceptance. This leads to severe involvement in gang activity, drugs, and crime. Johanna Jackson and June Carter analyze the relationship between Piri’s view of his world and his interactions with it in their article, The Intersection of Race and Gender in “Down These Mean Streets.” They conclude that Piri’s transition into adulthood involves numerous experiences of both racial and gender oriented forms of victimization which “lead to feelings of rage and anger against his father (home); his neighborhood (El Barrio) and his homeland (New York/U.S.A.)” (Jackson and Carter, 2008). This reaction is not an experience necessarily specific to only Piri Thomas, but may characterize some of the social implications racism can have on American youth and families and their view of their surrounding society.

Thomas, a second-generation American, explains how racism transformed his view of what being an American meant for him. While suffering from the racial injustices of social inequality, employment and educational discrimination, Piri’s perspective of his place as an American shifts from feeling proud of his country to feeling isolated because of the color of his skin and others’ perception of his worth. He illustrates,

“When I was a little kid in school, I used to go to general assembly all togged out with a white shirt and a red tie. Everybody there wore a white shirt and a red tie; and when they played the national anthem, I would put my hand over my heart. It made me feel great to blast out,

My country, ‘tis of thee

Sweet land of liberty

Of thee I sing....

And now when I hear it played, I can’t help feeling that it’s only meant for paddies. It’s their national anthem, their sweet land of liberty” (Thomas, 1968, pg. 124).
As an adolescent, Piri resists racial injustices and marginalization by engaging in drug use, frequent street fights, by physically and verbally abusing women, and eventually committing armed robbery (Jackson and Carter, 2008). Thomas is just one example of a young man caught in the middle of a social issue much larger than the individual. Americans, whatever skin color they may have, have been fighting for racial equality almost since this country’s birth. Although the United States has made great strides, evidences of modern racism still represent the present struggle of racism in America.
American government is often looked to by citizens of the United States to deal with and solve the prevalent issue of Racism. However, the government has been identified as one of the key players in contributing to this all-encompassing social, economic and political problem. James W. Loewen provides first-hand evidence of this in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. Loewen quotes Democratic senator Stephen A. Douglas announcing in 1858 that,

“[T]his government of ours is founded on the white basis. It was made by the white man, for the benefit of the white man, to be administered by white men. I am opposed to taking any step that recognizes the Negro man or the Indian as the equal of the white man” (Loewen, 1995).

While politicians spoke to supporting the ideals of equality and liberty, they continued to support racist causes found in the lack of supportive legislation, equal employment opportunities and social respect. The United States government has thereby been a key agent of racial oppression (Barusch, 2012). Whether or not the government itself is a racist institution is debatable. The important thing is to look at what the United States has done overtime to work toward a more perfect and equitable future.

Egalitariansim is considered by some to be the promise of democracy. Democracy’s Dilemma: Explaining Racial Inequality in Egalitarian Societies, written by Colin Wayne Leach, looks at the relationship between the Egalitarian ideal and what has and is actually occurring in America’s democratic system regarding racial equality. Leach argues that the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 1960’s was a critical step taken by American’s in the right direction. Changes in policies regarding legislation, major federal court decisions and various enforcement efforts were all ways in which the government began its much overdue shift towards fighting racial oppression and promoting equality for all (Leach, 2002). He however, promotes that ironically, it is the idea of egalitarianism that provides justification for Euro-Americans to “avoid the dilemma presented by racial inequality in a purportedly egalitarian society” (Leach, 2002). This avoidance allowed for racism to exist by believing that racism was the fault of African American’s and their natural racial inferiority, “rather than as a failure of Euro-Americans to implement their egalitarianism” (Leach, 2002). While African American’s are a large racial group victim to racial oppression within the United States, all other non-white racial groups can be considered as additional victims in this issue.

The present racial composition of the United States has been categorized by the U.S. Census Bureau as including White/Non-Hispanic, Hispanic or Latino, African American, American Indian & Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian & other Pacific Islanders (Barusch, 2012).  This breakdown only illustrates the major racial groups found in the United States. The Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies analyzes the experience non-mainstream racial populations have when assimilating into American culture. This assimilation encompasses the relationship a certain racial group has with American society and the impending relationship American society has with that group. Author Ramon Grosfoguel explains that when a new racial group immigrates to the United States, there is a process that occurs in which that population transforms into becoming “American.” This process includes becoming “acculturated to the values, norms and culture of the host society” (Grosfoguel, 1999). It is hoped, that this acculturation will eliminate any chance for racial oppression because of the groups successful incorporation of mainstream social expectations. However, Grosfoguel indicates that,

“Even though ethnic groups eventually assimilate, this does not mean that the new identity is a `melting’ identity that belongs to a homogenous ‘American’ culture. Groups lose their language and customs but ethnicity continues to be recreated in a new form of identity that is neither a ‘melting pot’ nor a simple repetition of their communities of origin” (Grosfoguel, 1999).

Understanding this process of assimilation is critical to understanding the current implications of immigrants and their susceptibility to racism in the United States. Yes, America is becoming a melting pot of people from all over the world, but there continues to be a separation between ethnic minorities, now labeled as “People of Color,” and Euro-Americans or “Whites.”

Current policy attempting to protect all individuals from the subjection of racial oppression include regulations such as Affirmative Action and Anti-Discrimination efforts. Affirmative Action is defined by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights as the measure that ensures opportunity to any deserving persons regardless of their race, sex, disability and national origin who have, “historically or actually been denied those opportunities and/or to prevent the recurrence of discrimination in the future” (ACLU, 1995). Affirmative action’s purpose and mission has allowed the United States to pass actual legislation regarding the need that all citizens and organizations have to support racial quality as well as the equality for other minority groups. The American Association for Affirmative Action directly works with profit and not-for-profit organizations as well as individuals to help implement this national strategy. They quote President Bill Clinton stating that, “It is in the nation’s best interest to create a more inclusive society that provides genuine equality of opportunity” (AAAA, 1995). Although efforts such as these have contributed significantly to the deep-seeded issue of racism in the United States, there is still much work to be done.

It is difficult within the spectrum of human rights and racism to pinpoint specific legislative regulations that would contribute significantly to the cause of promoting racial equality for all. No matter the type of legislation or the requirements placed on organizations to promote Anti-discriminatory efforts, the choice to see people around you as inferior to yourself because of the color of their skin or the language that they speak will always be up to the individual. However, this does not mean that an effort on the part of macro-level jurisdiction is not necessary. If I could change or implement three policies to impact the nature of racial equality for good, they would include eliminating the phrase, “People of Color,” ensuring that all people (including whites) are not discriminated against in regards to education and employment opportunities, and devotedly promoting the learning of different languages.

The phrase, “People of Color” continues to indicate an important difference between human beings and the color of their skin. This should not matter. Yes, there are cultural and ethnic concepts that play a major role in defining one’s identity; these concepts need always be considered. But the shade of your skin is not always an indicator of your culture. Even Euro-Americans or “whites,” I believe, have a color, and allowing the use of phrases such as this allows for the continued existence of a separation between human beings. Rather than being concerned with the color of someone’s skin, we should be more aware of the implications of their culture, gender, sexual orientation, religion and nationality and how these factor into the existence and development of their identity.

Effective current policy regarding affirmative action and anti-discriminatory efforts aim to provide equal opportunity for all. While race should not damper a person’s chance at obtaining a job or getting accepted into school, I also believe that it should not be the primary determining factor either. Opportunity should be based on a person’s individual qualifications and not be favored or discriminated against because of the color of their skin; this aspect should not matter. Whether it is favoring “white” over “color” or “color” over “white,” allowing or inhibiting someone’s opportunities based on race is racism.

The United States, I believe, is guilty for fostering generations who think they can get by successfully in this world by only speaking English, while expecting people who speak other languages to learn English. Another policy implementation that would be beneficial to leading America to a more race-equal future would be to mandate more people to learn other languages; primarily Spanish. It is expected for students of other countries to learn and become proficient in English, and so the same standard should be achieved by American students.


American Association for Affirmative Action. (1995). Access, Equity and Diversity. Retrieved from

American Civil Liberties Union, ACLU. (March 1995). A Definition of Fairness: Affirmative

Action. U.S. Commission on Civil Rights

Barusch, Amanda Smith. (2012). Foundations of Social Policy: Social Justice in Human

Perspective. Belmont, CA. Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning.

Grosfoguel, Ramon. (April 1999). Puerto Ricans in the USA: a comparative approach. Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, 25(2) 233. Gale Group.

Jackson, Johanna & Carter, June. (2008). The Intersection of Race and Gender in “Down These

Mean Streets.” USC Upstate Undergraduate Research Journal, 1 46-50.

Leach, Colin Wayne. (Dec. 2002). Democracy’s Dilemma: Explaining Racial Inequality in

Egalitarian Societies. Sociological Forum, 17(4) 681-696. Retrieved from

Loewen, James W. (1995). Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History

Textbook Got Wrong. The New Press.

Thomas, Piri. (May 1968). Down These Mean Streets. New York, New York. Signet, Signet

Classics, Signette, Mentorand Plume Books.

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