Black Like Me

In his last piece for TPQ prior to his untimely death, Frank O'Brien wrote about his experience with the Black community in the US. Frank O'Brien was a long time resident of Troy, NY, USA, and former head of Clan na Gael in same city area. His work had become a regular feature on TPQ. His contribution will be sorely missed.  

In his original 1961 nonfiction book, John Howard Griffin, put on makeup in order to gauge how bad African-Americans had it in this country, which obviously was pretty bad given that it caused the rise of the Civil Rights movement, Malcolm X and the Black Panthers.

I admire Malcolm X and Black Panthers, and now Black Lives Matter since they are militant, which in my estimation is the way they need to be since even law enforcement, and corrections treats young African-American males far differently than they do white skinned male youths. The same could be said of anyone who's skin is darker than white, and has facial features that don't match the Northern European, or let's say European features in general, since Eastern European people are many times the same as so-called Northern Europeans. In my experience a goofy acting, or even serious felon of a youth will get cut breaks that an African-American kid won't, as well as the old boy's network playing a part, as in who the kid's father might be.

In my fall from grace a few years ago, when I lost my ever so safe and comfortable family home in the safer part of town, here in Uncle Sam's home, I moved with a fast friend over to the mainly African-American neighborhood of South Albany. His would be girlfriend moved in her family, two cousins, and soon we had a very interesting mixture, two of us being white, and the rest being black Puerto Rican, and variations on both since some had had a white father or mother. We were the proverbial Brady Bunch of the 'hood, and though we clashed plenty from our differences, it wasn't an unfriendly atmosphere, merely one in which we all were on a large learning curve. Since I'm older than many of the young ones that were there, the many late night parties were difficult to deal with, plus I had stupidly picked the smallest room, but it was as I say a learning experience that I had needed to have for the longest time. As they say you just need to pick yourself up, and dust yourself off again when you fall down, and not wind up like Michael Douglas in the movie, Falling Down.

I began venturing out of our house there, which was a grand old manor home from the early 19th century, and got a feel for the neighborhood. There were drug dealers that hung out at the convenience store up the street, and as they got to know me they'd say hello to me, even though they knew I wasn't needing anything they were selling. There may have been a higher rate of crime, but this was to be expected given that it has always been a slightly riskier place to live as far as crime goes, but your criminals were both black and white, and many other persuasions. Life certainly wasn't fair for many there, yet there was a sense of community nonetheless, one which meant that you got to know a lot of people who lived there if you would open yourself up to it. Everyone, including me, steered clear of the Albany PD since they have a reputation for being racist, bigoted and being full of prejudice, and here I had once almost been a cop, and have my two year in Criminal Justice, so it tells you a lot when even I was wary of the fuzz there. Our lifestyle was unconventional to say the least, with a sort of hippie/homeboy admixture which fit fairly well unless one of our guests got a little bit out of hand, which happened only twice in my memory.

In my estimation of the Establishment in Albany comes off as being severely racist even though on the face of it you wouldn't know it unless you were black, Mexican, Hispanic or any of the other minorities that live there. Even though I could have passed for a homeless man at times, I was treated in a preferential way since apparently I was white, and articulate. It was the normal run, unfortunately, where if a cop saw you on the street late at night and you were black, they'd be more likely to give you a look over, or harass you in some way. If you were a young black man, or men, in a nice car, the cops would be more likely to run the plates on your car to see if there were any outstanding warrants. Racial profiling is alive and well, even though it was supposed to be deep-sixed after public uproar over it's ever not so subtle connotations. The fact was that even when I was a kid, who got into plenty of trouble with the law, I was always getting preferential treatment since my lawyer was a fancy one that our family went to when in need, and likely it was from the people that both my dad knew, besides our lawyer. My being white no doubt played a huge part in the situations that cropped up, so it was in retrospection an unfair shake being shown to me on many counts, including my being white.

My experience from being homeless also showed me a completely new reality that I had never had before, given the equal distribution of many kinds of people who populated the local homeless shelter back here in Uncle Sam's home town. It was an environment where you never left anything of value in the shelter, but instead always kept it nearby you since things had a habit of disappearing otherwise. Out of desperation many there were driven to an almost primordial state of being, where the biggest and strongest survived better, or say the craftiest, and ones who were more street wise. At the shelter a few of us looked out for each other, my having made a fast friend there on my first day.

A month later I was moved to what they call an emergency bed at a local group home for people who have either mental illness, or some other kind of disability. While still at the shelter, a great old friend who happens to be black, and my age, and in recovery, got me to many, many meetings, since I am an alcoholic in recovery. I made many more friends who were new to me, and of color, while at the group home, and we jived perfectly with each other, even better than my old family back in South Albany. For all of it's faults, Unity House of Troy, does do it's very best at eradicating any form of racism, bigotry and prejudice, as does Joseph's House, the homeless shelter I had been at. Where these institutions fail many times is in trying to help people to get back on their feet, working and if need be, going back to school. Even if you are lucky enough to be on disability, it all depends on how long you were working that decides how much you are paid each month, and if you can't show that you were working a long time, you barely get even enough to survive on for say two weeks, let alone 4 weeks. For many urban black poor, and others of color, each week you live from pay check to pay check since in the lower end jobs you basically qualify as what has been dubbed the 'working poor.'

With many, many black, and others of color living in abject poverty, it is just a little too much to also put up with the holier than thou attitude of cops, judges, teachers and social welfare agencies, who also stink here in Troy, NY. Racism is endemic here in the Capital District, but in Troy it is less so than in the neighboring communities that make up the larger area, but one who is black will still be looked at more suspiciously than say an upper class looking white kid who goes to college. It is more than a matter of racial profiling too, since the disease of racism carries over into many avenues of everyday life outside of brushes with law enforcement, and the hassling one might get in the so-called educational system. Even extended families where the grand children might be half black, experience rampant racism, even if indirectly by a few members of the family saying racial epithets offhandedly.

Though the epithets could even come from other black people, it still only serves to fuel the fire of such abusive words that have unfortunately been with us for countless generations. It still is though much more harmful, and obviously so, coming from someone who is white, or even from another minority community. It is one of, if not the highest forms of disrespect on the streets, causing gang shootings, and reprisal after reprisal. Black Lives Matter, along with our elder brothers and sisters from the Civil Rights era, and Black Panther Party days carry on with the work that still hasn't gotten rid of various forms of racism, bigotry and prejudice, but it has now reached such a fever pitch that it might finally be brought to an end, if only the spotlight is kept on it without it disappearing from the TV coverage. The onus really does fall to the media to be less worried about garnering viral news, and to show some real public service by continuing to keep the focus on the problem, and giving air time to social activists who are trying to reach the maximum sized audience. Perhaps we can be rid of the problem if the process is done by rote, to where it is excised like a cancerous growth from the body.

Because of there being much harder economic times, where the cost of living has skyrocketed, yet the minimum wage has been frozen at near to the same for year after year, movements such as there are for a higher minimum wage, like the $15 an hour one, are ever more important to those who are stuck having to work such jobs. It is since these jobs, that impact the minority communities so much, that it is high time we saw a "living wage" being on offer from the Establishment, as if they haven't shipped millions of American jobs already overseas as it is.

Economics and education are some of the tools that we need to see energized, promoted and aided by the Establishment if they really are serious about eradicating racism, and our caste like society, where there isn't even much of a middle class thanks to the idiocy and criminality of Wall Street, and their buddies in the Federal Reserve, and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Life on the streets many times involves so-called illicit drug sales, and sociological studies have demonstrated that most narcotics laws were deliberately aimed at blacks, and other minorities, and the penalties for violations of drug laws carry more prison time than even some murder convictions. If we are serious about eradicating crime, one good place to start is in decriminalizing drugs, and the sale of such, being that billions of dollars go each year to drug cartels, and networks, some of it going into the off the books black budgets of the CIA, and ultra secretive Black Ops units of our military.

The documentation for the last point is in fact so overwhelming that it is therefore incumbent upon us to scream at the top of our lungs about it, especially when it accounts for over 50% of those in State and Federal prisons, many of whom are black, and of other minorities. Like Prohibition before it, the lesson is obviously that if you want to take away the money going to drug cartels, and other organized crime, you simply legalize drugs, regulate them in a responsible way, and obviously increase money going towards education about how harmful drugs are. Most so-called crime from drug use should simply be prosecuted for the crimes that were committed while whomever was under the influence of drugs. Drug rehabilitation does work, but there isn't enough about it in the media, and on TV, so we should be spending the billions that wastefully have been spent on both the long ago lost War on Drugs, and our ridiculously run War on Terror[actually should be War of Terror]. The Pentagon has literally Lost trillions of Dollars  which still haven't been accounted for by them, and this kind of waste goes back as far as the Cold War, Vietnam and all the way up to the sickeningly wasteful 1980s and 90s, of Reagan and Bush. If every black in America was given a share of the trillions of dollars wasted by our Federal government, we'd have enough for reparations, and enough that each black citizen in America could say maybe have enough for a house, bought and paid for in cash, and even more to set aside for retirement, education or whatever their heart's desire.

Given our history we owe African-Americans for a lot of pretty bad stuff that was done, including murder, torture and tearing families apart, even if it supposedly, and technically it stopped after the Civil War. Obviously from the history it didn't stop, but merely changed form with Jim Crow laws, and the KKK scaring the hell out of any who crossed their line in the sand. Ours is not a democracy for most, but rather a hypocrisy, with Uncle Sam waving his back side in the faces of a majority of his citizens. I might be white, but from what I've seen I'd wage a war to help African-Americans realize the equality that hasn't been yet given to them, and as a country we should be ashamed about it.

If more of the goofs that support Trump, or Wall Street Hillary, would only turn over a new leaf, and realize that this country hasn't ever seen the writ of law being handed down equally, maybe they would be as Left wing as I am, and maybe, just maybe, they would rid themselves of racism towards African-Americans.


  1. Should the Arabs that settled in America also owe African Americans for slavery, given they were the major sellers to the 5% of Southern whites that owned them? If stuffs being given away, can i get something for the 1m European slaves taken by Arabs? Would that be called Islamophobic by Frank (if he could, all rhetorical given the circumstance).

  2. Sad to hear Frank has died, since the Quill has been publishing his articles I have enjoyed reading them.

    Condolences to his family and friends.


  3. I would share his sentiment on dealing with drugs - among many other things where I found this man making sense in ways most others would have been afraid to open their mind towards. Rest in peace Frank O'Brien

  4. Sorry to hear this. "Franko" and I would speak on the phone years ago, but then I wondered what had happened. This is a well-written piece and a tribute to his commitment and his cause.