This past fall, I saw the film Ex Libris, directed by the documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman. It is a documentary film about the New York Public Library, both the library system itself and the vital role it plays in the life of the City.
The film includes scenes of library patrons participating in discussion groups. In one scene, a discussion group at the library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue is engaged in a lively exchange of views about Gabriel García Márquez’s novel Love in the Time of Cholera with respect to romantic love. There were several scenes of library patrons participating in similar meetings and discussion groups at branch libraries in Manhattan and in other boroughs such as the Bronx. Some were about books, some involved a presentation cum discussion on topics of current interest. Others concerned how to make the library more accessible or serve community needs better.
Something that struck me was that the racial/ethnic composition or makeup of the various local groups seen in the film was so diverse. Well, one might say, would you not expect this in a city such as New York? Everyone knows it is racially heterogeneous and always has been.
I observed the same thing at a business presentation not long ago: a presentation by persons associated with an entrepreneurial company for attendees who had recently become involved as independent partners and persons interested in getting involved. It was a relatively small group and there was a lot of interaction among the attendees.
What I have observed is that in New York, people do not seem to notice or take account of racial differences. They just plain don’t matter.
At both the library sessions seen in the film and at the business meeting I attended, the ethnicity was varied: whites, blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and other groups. And, it was not as if there was just a smattering of or token representation by one racial or ethnic group or another. All were amply represented. There had obviously been no conscious effort to achieve “diversity” in the makeup of the audience/participants. It had just resulted, naturally, that the groups were notably diverse. In both instances, one did not get the sense of any one group predominating in any sense, numerically or otherwise.
The discussions were spirited. Persons were engaged. At no time — I observed this both in the film I saw and as a participant/observer at the business meeting — does one ever get the sense of consciousness by anyone — meaning speakers or audience; the give and take of participants who had something to say or just looked on with interest; group discussions — of race, their race or anyone else’s, being a factor that was taken or that one was expected to take into account, or that actually was noticed (which is to say, by an impartial observer), from what I could observe. Race was not a factor in any shape or form. It was clearly not something that might affect the content of the discussion and how someone or their contributions were viewed. People were just plain friendly and respectful, period. No one looked to be guarded or on the defensive. Everyone seemed fully accepted and welcomed. A priori. As a matter of course. No one is unwelcome nor patronized or talked down to.
In New York City, race really doesn’t seem to matter — as a public thing, that is: in social interactions and events, business, or commerce. In other words, in daily life, which goes on as it should. This is a welcome and edifying thing. It energizes and gladdens me.
— Roger W. Smith