Saturday, August 15, 2009

"I am (not) a racist."

It seems that whenever any white person gets caught doing something overtly racist, the first thing they do is get in front of the nearest TV camera and say, "I'm not a racist." Because no matter what you really think, the one thing you can never do is admit to being a racist. In fact, I bet if you did a survey of all the white people in America you would find that almost none of them are racists.

But I am.

For most of my life, I didn't know I was racist. My parents raised me to to treat everybody the same, just like Jesus. But we really didn't know any black people we could treat 'the same.' My Dad had one black co-worker at GE, whose son Eric went to my high school. We weren't really friends, but we were friendly. I remember once my parents had Eric's parents over to our house for a party. Apparently this created quite a scandal in our all-white Louisville neighborhood.

Even in the 'progressive' atmosphere of Wesleyan University, I didn't meet many black students. There were none in my freshman dorm. In the dining hall, all the black students sat together in one corner. Many of them lived in a 'special interest' dorm called Malcolm X House. I spent one evening at Malcolm X house with my friend Mark, who was dating a woman who lived there. I felt kind of like a tourist.

I spent some time in Texas where I worked construction with a black guy named J.J.
for a while. We got along O.K. I went to his house once. Felt like a tourist.

When I lived in Washington, D.C., the only black people I knew were the legal secretaries and the guys from the mailroom at the prestigious law firm where I worked. There were no black lawyers there. The part of D.C. where I lived, called Northwest, was where almost all of the white people lived. Even on the subway, I was pretty much surrounded by white people every day. I don't recall that this ever seemed odd to me. Although I remember going to a Grateful Dead concert at RFK stadium one hot summer day with some Russians who were visiting America for the first time. At one point, one of the Russians remarked, "the only black people here are working here."

Sometimes it takes an outsider to point out the obvious.

After I left D.C., I moved to Brooklyn and lived in a neighborhood that was 'in transition'. That meant that white people were moving in and buying up the old brownstones and the black people had to move out. I now had actual black neighbors, including The Rev. Al Sharpton, who lived one block down. When I rode the subway into Manhattan every morning, there were as many, if not more, blacks than whites on the train. There were also Hispanics, Asians, Persians, Russians, Jews, Muslims, Gays, Lesbians, Transvestites, Homeless People, Crackheads, and Panhandlers. I was a long way from Louisville.

The law firm where I worked, which was Rudy Giuliani's old firm, actually had one black partner. For a few months I even had a black co-worker. He told me he got the job because he went to the same college as the black partner. He spent most of his spare time calling up other black paralegals and lawyers on a list he got from his alumni office. He was a networker. He had to be.

One night, I was coming home late from a movie. I had stopped off for a beer or two, so it was pretty late when I got out of the subway, just a few blocks from my apartment. I started to cross the street and noticed a black man waiting on the opposite corner. For a moment, I got nervous. 'What's he doing hanging out on the corner this late at night? Is he going to mug me?' Then I noticed that on the other corner was another black man talking on the pay phone. I immediately felt guilty. The first guy was probably waiting for his friend to get off the phone. (Because all black people know each other.) How racist of me to assume he was a mugger.

I continued across the street and down the sidewalk. As I did, I heard the second guy hang up the phone and walk towards the first guy. A moment later I heard the scuffle of shoes on concrete coming from over my right shoulder. Before I had a chance to process that information, I had an arm around my neck and I was gasping for breath. It was a big arm, a muscular arm, a black arm.

A voice behind me said "Don't do nothin'." I wasn't about to. The second guy quickly searched my pockets and took my wallet. I think I may have tried to say something, but I couldn't speak. Or breathe. Suddenly, the lights went out.

When I opened my eyes, the world had gone cockeyed. There was a tree growing out at a right angle from the wall I was leaning against. My head felt warm. My glasses were gone.

It took a full minute for me to figure out that I was lying on the sidewalk. My attackers were long gone. My glasses were next to me, unbroken. I tried to stand up, but the sidewalk was tilting back and forth. I sat there for a while. The street was completely deserted. Eventually, I got up and walked home. My head was pounding from the huge bump I'd received from being dropped onto the concrete. But I was alive. And that was something.

I called the police and they took me to the hospital where I sat in the waiting room for what felt like hours. Then someone led me to a room with an x-ray machine and had me lay on a steel table. I was in there for another twenty minutes before they let me go. The technician kept pressing my head against the table to get the x-ray. I told him that the reason I was there was because I had a big goddamn bump on the back of my head and that when he pressed my head against the steel table it really, really hurt. He did not seem concerned.

By the way, for the record, the cops and the x-ray tech were white.

I had to wait for a white doctor to look at my x-ray before they let me go home. It was now about four a.m. I had no money and no-one to call to ask for a ride. I was deep in the heart of Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the toughest neighborhoods in Brooklyn. That means that only low-income black people live there.

The two mile walk from the hospital through Bed-Sty to my apartment in the pre-dawn darkness was one of the longest journeys of my life. My only consolation was that, if I were to be mugged again, I had nothing left for anyone to steal.

So I had that going for me.

For the next couple of months, I was a little freaked-out. Apparently I was suffering from a mild form of post-traumatic stress brought on by the combination of the mugging and the head injury. Since, as a temp, I had no health insurance, I had to rely mainly on the advice and comfort of friends and co-workers during this period.

The good news was, I did get my wallet back. Apparently the muggers tossed it onto a rooftop after removing the twenty dollar bill I had gotten from an ATM less than an hour earlier. Someone found it and turned it in to the police. All in all, I hadn't fared too badly. Little bump on the head, loss of twenty bucks, replace my credit cards -- not exactly a catastrophe. But there was one lingering effect.

A couple of weeks after I was mugged, I was riding the subway. A black man got on and stood next to me. I was sitting and he was standing, so his forearm was right at my eye level. It was a big arm, a muscular arm, a black arm. The sight of that arm sent me into an instant flashback -- I couldn't breathe, my heart was pounding, I felt dizzy and sick. Not until he moved away did I begin to feel better. He was a complete stranger to me. And I hated him.

Months later I was walking down a gravel path when jogger came up behind me. I heard the scuffle of his footsteps coming over my right shoulder and I froze in fear -- expecting to see that black arm encircle my throat. But it passed.

That was many years ago. Fortunately, I no longer freak out when I see black men with muscular forearms. I do still get a little jumpy when I hear footsteps over my right shoulder, though.

So, the other night I was walking down Santa Monica Boulevard. Not late. Not deserted. Shops and restaurants were open, cars passed by. Just ahead of me was a solitary black man, walking in the same direction. I guess I was walking faster than he, because I drew closer to him as we neared the corner. But then, he stopped walking and moved over to the side, by the entrance to a tailor shop. I couldn't help thinking he was specifically waiting for me to pass, but I wasn't sure why. As I went by him and stepped into the street, I glanced back over my right shoulder and noticed he was walking again, right behind me.

The same feelings of suspicion overcame me. 'Why is this guy following me? Is he going to mug me?' And as before the suspicion was immediately followed by guilt. 'Am I afraid of him just because he's black? Am I really such a racist?'

And the answer is, "yes." I was afraid of him because he was black, just as he was probably afraid of me following him because I am white. No matter how hard I try to force myself not to prejudge people, I do it anyway. I do it all the time. I do it even when I think I'm not doing it.

When I saw the two black men hanging out on the corner in Brooklyn, I was nervous because they were black. Then I felt guilty, also because they were black. I made an error in judgment that night because I was so concerned about them being black that I forgot about the fact that they were TWO GUYS HANGING OUT ON THE STREET CORNER IN BROOKLYN AT TWO A.M.

Every time I tell this story, it is always the story of how I was mugged by two black guys. But that's not what happened. I was mugged by two MUGGERS. Why do I need to mention that they were black? Because, apparently, I see black people differently than I do white people. Whether they are muggers or lawyers or construction workers or secretaries or students or just some guy walking down the street. I see them as black first, people second. I do.

So, I think the first step in becoming a post-racist society is not electing a black president. The first step is realizing that we elected a president, who happens to be black. And we did it despite the fact that we are all still racists. Well, I am anyway.

Where's the TV camera?