A columnist of heart and mind

A columnist of heart and mind
Interviewing the animals at Children's Fairyland in Oakland. L-R: Bobo the sheep, Gideon the miniature donkey, me, Tumbleweed Tommy the miniature donkey, Juan the alpaca, Coco the pony

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Are You Scared Of This Man?

Last Saturday I went to a local hotel to interview some alumni from Berkeley High who are planning an all-class reunion for everyone who ever went to the school. As it happened, everyone in the group was African American.
I was a few minutes late, so they were already seated in the hotel's restaurant/lounge when I arrived. We really hit it off, and they told me some wonderful stories about the old days, and I had a terrific time.
After the interview I got up to leave, and they all thanked me for coming.
"Hey, thank you for all the great stories," I replied.
"No, you don't understand," said the woman sitting next to me. "Before you arrived, the manager kept pressuring us to leave. But once you showed up, everything was fine."
I was shocked, but they weren't.
"Happens all the time," she said. "When white people see more than a half dozen black people together, they start getting nervous."
Ironically, the reason they invited me to the meeting is that they want to get the word out to all alumni, especially white alums, that they are more than welcome.
I'm writing this column 24 hours later, and I'm still shaken by the experience. It brought home to me the fact that I have absolutely no idea what it's like to be black in America.
I don’t know what it's like to walk down street and hear the door locks go "click." My heart has never sunk when women clutch their purses more tightly – or even cross the street - when they see me coming.
I've never been pulled over for "Driving While Black." Or had to listen to pundits like Sean Hannity and Bill O'Reilly say that the problems in my community are due to some inherent character flaw.
At best, this white paranoia can be soul-killing. At worst, it can literally be lethal, as the George Zimmerman trial demonstrates.
Whites have been paranoid about black violence at least since Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831, and probably long before that. But the facts have never born out their fears.
To the contrary, the dominant theme in American history has been white-on-black violence, from slavery to the Ku Klux Klan.
So when I hear people like John Roberts say racism isn't a problem any more, it makes me wonder at the bubble we are living in. The facts are staring us in the face, but we refuse to see.
And don't tell me everything is OK now because we finally have a black president. A lot of people hated Bush and Clinton, too, but nobody ever tried to deny their legitimacy, as birthers like Donald Trump constantly do to Obama. And I never saw any signs depicting Bush or Clinton with bones through their noses.
As we approach the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington at the end of this month, it's easy to forget how much farther we still have to go.
We are never going to solve the racial problem in this country until white people use their imaginations for once and try to imagine what it must be like to walk in a black person's shoes. 
Some might call that empathy. I call it patriotism.

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