I’ve avoided writing about racial politics for the same reason I’ve avoided stepping on land mines, but the news is filled with nothing but racial conflict these days: Trayvon Martin, the firing of John Derbyshire from National Review, the purging of Pat Buchanan from MSNBC, the daily accusations from the liberal media that conservative opponents of the President are racists, etc., ad nauseam.

I’ve always found “white nationalism” to be an unsavory phenomenon, a reductionist and grossly materialist (in the Marxist sense) ideology with a deservedly bad reputation.  My own run-in with these nationalists-without-a-nation occurred in the very pages of Taki’s Magazine, where Derbyshire’s offending (and offensive) piece was published, and led in short order to his purgation from NR.  In brief, I took the “white nationalists” to task for limning the methods and mind-set of the multiculturalists, characterizing Jared Taylor, their intellectual guru, as a white version of race-hustler Al Sharpton.  Taylor, in his reply, didn’t respond to my argument, but instead went off on a rambling tangent in defense of his antipathy to “miscegenation.”

My own views on race, although rationalized by my libertarianism and my reflexive rejection of any form of collectivism, are rooted in my own experience.  Indeed, this is true of most ideologues, who dress up and articulate beliefs whose real roots are buried deep in their own past, going all the way back to childhood.

I was a bad kid, always getting in trouble, although my sort of trouble didn’t involve violence of the gangbanger variety so popular nowadays.  Without going into the details, suffice it to say that my parents and the school authorities one day decided they’d had quite enough of me, although I hadn’t committed any crime (yet).  I soon found myself shipped off to a facility for young offenders, a group home in upstate New York.  Most of the young inhabitants had been sent there by the courts.

It was run by the Jesuits, young seminarians for the most part, and the facilities were clean and well kept.  In fact, it looked like the high school from which I had just been expelled in a wealthy New York suburb, but for one little detail: I wasn’t allowed to leave.  Yes, there was a wall—a barbed-wire fence.  And another thing: Most of my “classmates” were African-Americans.  The rest were Puerto Rican.

I was the only white guy.

I well remember my first day out on the exercise yard, where we were let out of our dorms and allowed to run around.  A group of older kids—all black—sauntered up to me, and one of them asked, “What did you do to get put in this place?”

“I didn’t do anything,” I answered.  After all, I hadn’t committed any crime.

My interlocutor looked at me skeptically: “You must have done something to get put here!”

I didn’t know what to say.  I had entered a world so different from the protected middle-class enclave I had known all my life that I couldn’t even imagine it.  I was soon to be educated, however, and realized quite quickly that the rules had changed.  I had only met two black people in my life up to that point, and I never knew them well.  They were the only African-Americans in my otherwise lily-white high school.  But my fellow inmates came from a different place entirely: their mores, their mannerisms, even their language.  Suddenly, I found myself in another country, and it was learn the language, or else.

I spent a lot of time in the library, the only place of refuge in that cold institutional setting, where I read the complete works of C.S. Lewis; the Narnia books were a particular comfort.  It was an easy place to escape to because no one but me ever went there, and the stacks were full of great stuff to read.  I think I must have read practically every volume they had—and that was the key to surviving that ordeal.

“You can read?”

The guy who came into my dorm room was about twice as tall as me, and much older­—nearly 20.  The others looked up to him precisely because he was bigger, older, and a star athlete, but his normally confident tone was now plaintive, even a little humble.  I looked up at him and answered in the affirmative.

“Will you write a letter for me, then?”

I was baffled: Why couldn’t he write his own letter?  Was he just lazy?  And then it dawned on me: He couldn’t read or write.  He just didn’t know how.  Careful not to show any sign of disdain or surprise, I agreed to write a letter to his parents for him.  As he explained it, they hadn’t come to visit him in some time.  (As my own parents had been told to stay away so I could “acclimate” to this jail, I empathized with his plight.)  He sat down and dictated while I put what he said into proper English.

Word soon spread: Raimondo in Dorm 3 can read!  And write!  It wasn’t long before I was writing letters for a good many of my fellow inmates, and this gave me status—and protection.  The smaller and younger you were, the more likely it was that you were going to be brutalized.  I was safe, however, surrounded on the playground by a veritable Praetorian Guard of those I’d ghostwritten letters for.

I learned a lot about my “clients” writing these missives for them.  My first-day interlocutor to the contrary, most hadn’t done anything to merit incarceration—they had simply been abandoned by their families, made wards of the state, and handed over to this jail named after a saint.  Bouncing from foster home to group home, they had eventually been swallowed up by the system.

We were sent to the local high school for our “education” but were carefully segregated from the rest of the student body, who viewed us with fear and trepidation.  We were the Bad Kids.  Although I came from the same middle-class background as the locals, and had the same skin color, I was treated no better because of it.  Taking what comfort we could in the solidarity of outcasts, among ourselves we called the locals “yokels” and viewed them with ill-disguised contempt.

Although most could hardly read or write, it wasn’t because they lacked intelligence; it was just that no one had bothered to teach them.  They were smart, and quick.  They listened to my philosophical rants (I had just discovered Ayn Rand) patiently and with full understanding, arguing when they disagreed and asking all the right questions.  And they were wiser than I was in my bookish certainty: When I tried to convince them to organize some kind of rebellion, they just looked at me and laughed, wisely suggesting I drop the whole idea before the administration got wind of it.

When I think about “white nationalism” and Derbyshire’s advice to his children to “stay away from blacks in groups,” I think of my long-ago friends in this warehouse for lost children.  I think of their bravery in the face of abandonment, their good humor in spite of it all, and I know I will never betray them.  Because for one year-long interregnum in the course of my white middle-class life, I was one of them.