In my heart I’m biased in favor of people of color, especially African Americans.
It’s because although I am Caucasian, I stopped being white a long time ago. Few things will erase whiteness faster than seeing one’s black child, handcuffed and seated on a curb surrounded by heavily armed cops less than a hundred feet from his own front door.
He had ‘fit a description’. It started with ‘Black Male.’
The actual perpetrator, who was caught a block away and identified by his victims, was taller, darker, dressed completely differently, and appeared to be ten years older. The only way he could have looked less like our son would have been if he was white.
But then he wouldn’t be a Black Male, would he?
Our son is law-abiding, smart, savvy, and careful. But like every black parent, I worry about him, and his sister, crossing paths with the wrong cop, or the wrong civilian, every damn day.
One of the cops who stood over our son while awaiting the eyewitness, repeatedly and aggressively said to him, “Why’d you do it!?”, which is both stupid, and illegal. When one of the witnesses, our neighbor from up the block, arrived he took one look and said, “No that’s not him,” and our son was released. As every black parent in America knows, it could have gone very differently.
But I had stopped being white way before that incident, and I was attracted to black people years before I met and fell in love with my children’s mother, 35 years ago.
Our life together has happened mainly in two of the most diverse places on earth, Los Angeles, and New York City, in parts of town where, if our mixed marriage made any of our neighbors uncomfortable, they kept it to themselves.
By contrast, when we were growing up my birthplace, Westchester County, NY, and my wife’s, North Tulsa, Oklahoma were, respectively, almost all white, and all but entirely black. North Tulsa was infamously terrorized and destroyed by rampaging Klansmen and their followers in 1921, and the city of Tulsa is still divided along racial lines to this day.
Until my parents moved into Manhattan in the early 70’s, we lived in an extremely white world. In primary school I only remember spending time around two black people. Sam the school custodian, and his son, Sam Jr., who was in my class. I remember at recess one day Sam Jr. was chasing a girl around the playground, but not for fun. He was angry. The teacher on duty stopped him and asked why he was chasing her.
He took a breath and said, “She called me..” then he took another breath and said, “a negro.” The teacher stiffened for a moment then answered, “Well, you are a negro.”
And I remember knowing three things: 1. The girl had not said ‘negro’. 2. The teacher was an asshole, and 3. Sam was a very strong kid.
How did I know? I was a rich white 11 year old in suburban New York. Why was I already aware of racism to that degree? Why was I sure that Sam had thought better of telling the teacher what he’d really been called?
At that time it was mainly because of television, which was in many ways still as segregated as North Tulsa. But, when those rare black people who made it onto TV appeared, they were so extraordinary I couldn’t help but be enthralled.
When I was four, Cassius Clay(soon to become Mohammad Ali), was a rising young heavyweight, Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier were becoming movie stars, Bob Gibson was the most feared starting pitcher in baseball, and Jim Brown was rewriting the NFL record books. Then by the time I was eight the Black Panthers were the most dangerously glamorous group of young men in the country. H.Rap Brown, on television, saying “Violence is as American as Cherry Pie,” was to political speech what Jimi Hendrix lighting his guitar on fire was to Rock & Roll. The first two albums I ever bought were The Jimi Hendrix Experience, and the Chambers Brothers. When I was a child I didn’t understand a great deal of what the black people I saw on TV were expressing, but somehow I knew they were right.
The world was changing rapidly in the 60’s, and there were only three TV Networks: ABC, NBC and CBS, that had the means and infrastructure to capture and report a cogent sense of what was going on in America. Even on late night talk shows, political relevance seemed to matter. It wasn’t that those shows wanted to feature political debate. They couldn’t avoid it. And back then being funny every fifteen seconds was not a requirement. What was required was real star power, and it helped that the major talk shows were hosted by the likes of David Susskind, Jack Paar, Dick Cavett, Steve Allen, Dinah Shore, and Johnny Carson: talented, worldly people, who were smart enough to host shows five nights a week wherein there was a good chance that meaningful conversations were going to break out, whether they liked it or not.
In Raoul Peck’s stern and beautiful film, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’, there’s a clip, from an episode featuring James Baldwin on the Dick Cavett show, that is an example of ‘civil discourse’ at its most lucid and electrifying. There is nothing on television now that comes close to the kind of high-stakes, smart and varied dialogue that I snuck down the hall to watch on black and white TV, when I was a weird little white kid in Westchester.
I remember sitting close to the screen, watching Nina Simone, Malcolm X., James Brown, Angela Davis, Rafer Johnson, Nipsy Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Dick Gregory, Arthur Ashe, Julian Bond, Flip Wilson, Dianne Carroll and many more on TV in prime time, dressed in stylish attire, talking about the events and politics of the day. For a week in February of 1968, during the height of the Vietnam war and nationwide Civil Rights protests, Johnny Carson stepped aside so that Harry Belafonte could guest-host the Tonight Show. 15 of the 25 guests that week were African Americans, and the list included Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy. Those two conversations can be found on YouTube, but some of the episodes are lost forever, because back then shows would routinely tape over old episodes, to save money. The TV audience’s response to that week was as deeply divided as the country, but the ratings were as good or better as they were for Carson himself, and they went up as the week progressed.
Then, a brief time later, when I was a week shy of ten years old, Dr. King stood before a congregation in Memphis and said, “I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight that we as a people will get to the promised land,” and the next day he was murdered.
He had become more than a champion of civil rights. His was a voice that could profoundly, and permanently upset the status quo.
On that terrible day I didn’t know how important he was, but I do remember having the sense that he was irreplaceable.
Two months later Bobby Kennedy was murdered. Our country has never recovered.
Skepticism isn’t optional for black Americans. I don’t know if James Earl Ray, or Syrhan Syrhan acted alone, but I’m sure they didn’t. The fact that both Kennedy assassinations, and the murder of Dr. King, are crimes that remain only partially ‘solved’, is no surprise to black Americans. To believe wholeheartedly in the declared ideals of America, while feeling the threat of intense and violent racism that is always lurking in the lives of black Americans, can feel like the bleakest kind of grief.
When I was a kid I couldn’t put a name to that feeling, but there it was.
In that same year I got to see Tommie Smith and John Carlos raise their black-gloved fists on the podium at the ’68 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City, but I didn’t find out until years later, that the third man on that podium, a white Australian named Peter Norman who had won the silver medal, wore a badge in solidarity with Smith and Carlos, and when he returned home to Australia was treated as a pariah for supporting them, and despite being at the peak of his talents, was never asked to compete for his country again. He suffered greatly, but kept his integrity and remained friends with Smith and Carlos for the rest of his life. When he died in 2006, they delivered eulogies at his funeral.
Peter Norman was a rare white man.
In my experience a great many white Americans (and I daresay Australians), pretend they’re not racist, but deep inside, believe themselves superior to people of color, especially black people. I know this because it’s obvious, but also because I’ve been confided in more than enough times over the years by white people who thought that we were on the same team. These asides haven’t just occurred in sports bars, or at the gym. I’ve heard them at ‘liberal’ political fundraisers, cultural events, and in trendy restaurants. A couple of weeks after this past election day, a friend of mine got called a nigger in the Whole Foods on Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica. The Trump plan, to make America racist again, is working, because America was never not.
I’m not immune. In my lifetime I’ve believed racist dogma, laughed at racist jokes, and, more recently, been afraid of people based on their color, their hats, and how low their jeans are sagging. One day in Harlem, my son and I were walking up the street to a bowling alley, and he said, “Man, this is so annoying.”
“What is?” I asked.
“At home, I’m the scary black dude!” he replied.
We laughed, because compared to some of the brothers we were walking past, he wasn’t even a little bit scary.
But that’s just it. There is still to this day, no one more threatening in white America, than an unapologetic black man. White people still expect some sort of deference from black people because as a people we are twisted by demons of our own creation. For hundreds of years we have known that the American narrative, of progress and reconciliation, of a nation taking resolute steps toward a more perfect union, of a process that increased goodwill and straightened the path to equality, is a story that has only a few parts truth and a great deal of untruth.
It was black people who wielded moral, intellectual and when necessary, physical force to make this country change. They were joined and aided by people of every color, but every step has been followed by backlash. Trump is the latest, and most vile backlash since Jim Crow.
Like Jim Crow, the rise of Trump is the opposite of a society recognizing its ingrained fears and working to overcome them. It is prejudice as policy. There was a southern senator, during the civil right era, who was asked if he was prejudiced toward black people. He answered, “Yes I am, but I hope that my children will not be.” That’s a good place to start, but the opposite is where we’re headed.
What is most detestable, is white people who believe, despite the irrefutable breadth and range of evidence, that their whiteness still makes them superior. People like Trump strategist Steve Bannon, who apply prodigious intellect to ‘proving’ a lie, and in doing so market a set of beliefs that motivate racial violence. It shouldn’t be extraordinary, or agonizing for white Americans in 2017 to admit being racist. In fact it should be a relief. After all, white Americans have been raised on racism for generations. Fear of people of color is ingrained in our culture. The logic is as simple as it is deadly. The darker they are, the more we should fear them. Even white people of goodwill have the maddening tendency to demonstrate their lack of prejudice by saying things like, “I don’t see color, I just see people,”, which if stated honestly would translate as, “I don’t see you, I just see your color, but I’m trying to treat you as if you’re white.”
So, I’m here to tell you that despite having bridged the racial divide, I’m still guilty of racist assumptions. I make damning judgements about white people all the time, based on the way they talk, dress and behave in the world. White men of a certain age, attitude, accent and style, make the hair on the back of my neck stand up because I assume they are racist. The fact that I’m often right doesn’t forgive my assumptions.
When our two children were growing up, they used to tease me for being the only white person in the family, to which I’d reply, “Hey, I’ve been black a lot longer than you.” I enjoyed the puzzled looks on their young faces, and I’m proud of how they’ve gone about being black in America. Obviously, I’ll never know what it feels like to be suspected, feared, scorned, attacked, belittled, mocked and scapegoated because of the color of my skin. But it’s also true that I’ve come as close to knowing that feeling as a white American can get, and I’ve never been more afraid for the future of our country.