Scraping More Paint

I watched an hour-long program on MSNBC recently, “Everyday Racism in America.” Here’s the link if you did not see it.  I urge you watch it, even before you read another word here. That tells you, I hope, how valuable I perceive this video to be.

everyday racism in America MSNBCOne reason I feel that way is that the concept of “everyday” racism is most likely difficult for many to grasp—many white folks, that is.

The stories told during the program were not just the dramatic ones we know from police shootings and other violence, but more about how ordinary human encounters with white people, police yes but also neighbors and fellow shoppers and many others, too often turn out to be painful and angering, if not dangerous, for the person or persons of color who are involved. This is part of their daily living, their everyday lives, in the United States of America. They have to live each day knowing, yes knowing, something ugly can, and probably will, happen.

michael-hayesSometimes, police or others get it right, as here  in a news report about a young Black businessman in Memphis, Michael Hayes, but the initial action—a white woman calling police about the man at a boarded up house across the street, and continuing verbal outbursts even after the police verify his identity and his legitimate purpose in being in her neighborhood—is very common and at least painful and often dangerous for the person of color.

This story, and many from the MSNBC program, and others I read often in the media, have caused me to examine my own history of unconscious or inadvertent, or even intentional or at least obvious, racist behavior.

Recently, while walking our dog, I encountered a group of young Black men, and I was surprised to realize I felt some anxiety. I thought to myself, why do I feel this? They were a group of friends—hard to tell if there were high school or college students, perhaps both—who are enjoying joking and jiving. Then, my mind flashed back to an incident in Detroit from my childhood.

Bleazby's store Detroit
Bleazby Brothers, Detroit

My father and I (age five or six) had driven into Detroit to pick up my aunt (my mother’s older sister) for Thanksgiving dinner at our home in Milford. She worked in the city during the winter months for a gift store (she also worked for them in the summer in a northern Michigan community when the store catered to the many tourists). When in Detroit she lived at a downtown hotel near the store (the picture below makes it look very glamorous).

He parked right in front of the hotel. I waited in the front seat—I think it was 1952 when I was six years old—while my father went up the steps to the hotel to collect my aunt. He was gone a short time.

But in that time, an older Black (we would have said Negro) man opened the rear hatch of our station wagon and started to climb in. I was startled; I am not sure I had time to feel much fear.

My father came out with my aunt, waved to me, and then saw what was happening. He left my aunt standing on the steps while he raced down yelling at the man to get out of the car. When my father got to the back of the car, the man climbed out, mumbling words I could not hear. He left, giving a slight bow to my father.

Madison-Lenox Hotel
This is the hotel, now demolished (as so much has been in Detroit)

By now, my aunt had gotten to the car, and climbed in the back seat. My father sat in the driver’s seat. He asked me if I was okay. I said yes.

My aunt said, “Well, I’m not okay. That is outrageous” (I cannot remember her precise words, but these feel right). “That Negro (I don’t think she used the ugly “N-word” but I am not sure) needs to be arrested. Bob (speaking to my father), you should immediately call the police.”

“Well, Grace” (my aunt’s name), I am not going to do that. I think he meant no harm. It is bitter cold out and he had no coat or hat, only a thin shirt and pants. I think he was trying to get warm” (again, not my father’s precise words, but I think close).

“But,” continued my aunt, “Robin could have been killed. Don’t you care?”

“That’s enough,” my father said, his voice moving into a range I knew meant he was angry. “Of course, I care, and if Robin had been in real danger I would be doing that. In my judgment he was not at much risk. Besides, I don’t want this to create ugly feelings in Robin.”

My aunt started to speak again, but my father cut her off. “We will say no more about it, unless Robin has anything he wants to say.” I remained silent, as we all did the rest of the way home (an hour or so). I remember it was an uncomfortable ride.

Later, my mother asked me how I felt. She said Daddy had told her what happened. I told her I was okay. I don’t remembering acknowledging any fear or anxiety. She told me that neither she or my father would ever let me be harmed. I said I knew that.

I have thought of this over the years. It was my first encounter with a Black person (this is before we moved to the country and had Black neighbors (as I recounted in the previous post). How much has it affected my perceptions and reactions?

As I have acknowledged before, my father showed no signs of racist thinking or behavior (until I learned later about his ugly feelings toward Native Americans). In fact, his actions and comments in this incident are consistent with his voice on the subject of white attitudes toward Black people.

At the same time, however, he never engaged me in any dialogue on the subject, never sought to share one-on-one with me his own views and beliefs. He surely did not prepare me for a racist world.

And my aunt, who I cherished and who was in some ways like a second mother to me, was both a fearful woman and quite judgmental. Over the years, I heard her say some unpleasant things about others—not just Black people but others outside her circle.

So, here I am, a 71-year-old white man (65 years later), feeling anxiety when I encounter a group of laughing young Black men who make space for me on the sidewalk as we pass, even some nodding at me and looking admiringly at our dog.

Will it never end?

And I know the answer, at least for me, is to get it out, admit my prejudices and fears, trace and uncover my history, “scrape off the paint they used to cover my senses” (as suggested by poet Alberto Caeiro in my previous post), in order to undo the damage done to me and to help others do the same. I expect there will be more paint to remove, and I pray I will do it whenever I see it.

What about you?

I repeat my invitation: Sharing these stories is a form of confession, without which repentance and reparations are impossible.  I hope some readers will write here on the blog where comments are solicited. Whatever you share in this spirit I will approve for publication so others can see the comments too. If that is too much for you at this moment, feel free to write me personally at RevDrRobin@comcast.net

Segregation Then, Segregation Now . . . Segregation Forever?

The election of Barack Obama, and his re-election, caused some to think the United States had moved to a new level of racial justice and harmony (well, harmony anyway).

The recent bout of killings in all parts of the nation, the reminder that although things are much better in New Orleans poor Black residents still face daunting odds in getting their lives back (and when the storm struck 10 years ago they were the ones most often the victims of disinterest in their plight), and ugly comments about immigrants and proposals aimed at them, remind us that all is not well in the still-racialized United States.

Friends on Facebook just made me aware of an intriguing map project which marks how segregation still haunts so much of the country.

racial map USA mostlyThe map, created by Dustin Cable at University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, is stunningly comprehensive. Drawing on data from the 2010 U.S. Census, it shows one dot per person, color-coded by race. That’s 308,745,538 dots in all–around 7 GB of visual data. It isn’t the first map to show the country’s ethnic distribution, nor is it the first to show every single citizen, but it is the first to do both, making it the most comprehensive map of race in America ever created.

racial map Sacramento
Sacramento

There has been much work to achieve housing desegregation, but many experts have pointed out that just because a place is less segregated it is not necessarily truly integrated. And as this map project makes clear, some places–California cities may be the best example–are far more integrated than others.

You can check all this out for yourself here.

Detroit in green, Oakland County in blue
Detroit in green, Oakland County in blue

I checked out Detroit, knowing that it is considered by some to be the most segregated city in the nation. I am a native of Michigan–Oakland County to be more precise, the jurisdiction just north of the Detroit city limits. Eight Mile Road dividing the city and the county, was, when I left Michigan in 1981, a racial dividing line. And it still is today! The color contrast on the map–like the color contrast on the ground, is stunning.

Across the southeast United States, where I lived for 12 years in Richmond, still shows much of the historic pattern of the Black Belt, originally labeled because of the rich soil but later so named because of the prepondance of slave-labor plantations.

racial map Black Belt
Black Belt in the Southeast

The good news is that there have been changes. The bad news is that on the whole we remain a nation visually, and viscerally as recent events indicate, divided by race.

The divisions are not accidental. They are the result of long-held ideas, practices and policies. The good news is that means we can change them. The bad news is that so few seem interested in doing so.

Why can’t we still get Congress to overcome the gutting of the Voting Rights Act? Why can’t we get better training for police in dealing with highly emotional encounters between Black people and police? Why is that Black transwomen are still far more vulnerable to attack and murder than white ones (not that either deserve this treatment)? Why is that poverty still impacts the Black community far more than others?

New Orleans
New Orleans

And why can’t the progress in New Orleans be more balanced? Why can’t build a truly multi-racial society?

If you think we have done that, look at these maps.

And then think back to January 1963, when then Governor George Wallace of Alabama made his pledge, “segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever.”  We have made progress, but so far Governor Wallace still has much evidence to support his claim.