Suspicious

Students at Howard University put out this video in response to Trayvon Martin’s tragic death. I strongly encourage you to watch it, because of its powerful refrain: young men on their way to careers in history and law put on “hoodies” — like the one I’m wearing right now — and say, “Do I look suspicious?”

And my gut response, my immediate reaction, no matter what I tried to stop myself was, “Yes. Yes you do.” Because I’m white, they’re black, and I’m racist.

Let’s hear that again, shall we?

I am racist.

I was raised a middle-class white man, so I was taught by movies, TV, music, police reports, politicians, and the culture in general that young black men are inherently violent, inherently untrustworthy. Note that. Movies, TV, politicians, music — all of these things are for sale. Society pays for the pleasure of listening to music that tells them black people are violent. Society pays for the pleasure of watching movies that show black men as criminals. And society often votes for people who pledge to “keep us safe” by “being tough on crime,” doubling down on the War on Drugs, mandatory minimums, and three-strikes-you’re-out. In short, society pays for these images and shows them to the children, who then grow up, pay for more, and show them to their own kids in turn. I grew up as one of those children.

And so I am racist.

I try to fight it. I see a black man out walking with his kids and I’m pleased: “Oh, he’s a good father.” I listen to the men in the Howard University video and I think, “Oh, they’re so articulate.” I love The Wire. But look, I’m being racist even as I try to fight my racism. I’m pleased to see the black father, but I’m also surprised. I’m just shy of calling the men of Howard “credits to their race.” I love The Wire and I relentlessly mention that I do. I probably would say, “I have black friends,” — except I don’t. Not one. I have black family, but at this point in my litany I am not sure if saying that helps or hurts!

So I look at a history major (my field) wearing a hoodie (like mine) and listening to hip-hop (as I do) and yes, he looks suspicious to me. Why? Because I am judging him on the color of his skin, which is pretty much the same as judging him on no basis at all. Which puts the fault on me.

They say that when you have a problem, the first step is admitting it.

A related step is acknowledging that it’s your problem, not anyone else’s. Black people in America are not at fault for the attitudes aimed at them. White people created this problem, white people perpetuate this problem, and white people need to fix this problem. Because it’s easy for Concerned White People to beat themselves up for this issue, and to “try to help,” but black people don’t need whites to stand there punching themselves, or “lending a hand” — they need white people to clean up their own mess.

I have a practice which I try to follow on the bus and around town, seeing the people I pass by as human, not as the labels that are so easy to apply. I try to get my reaction to be “people” before “man” or “woman” or “black.” In the case of black men, I’ve managed it exactly once. I’ll keep trying.

But note also that I try to see them as humans first, but I still try to see them as black. To be “colorblind” in this day and age is still more hurtful than helpful. Why? Because this society, on the whole, is still a loaded weapon pointed at black people, and to pretend otherwise is to take the safety off. Even if I don’t personally pull the trigger, I’ve still set up a tragedy. Try this metaphor: I, as a teacher, stand in front of a classroom and say, “I will treat each and every one of you exactly the same, with no discrimination.” A laudable goal… but not if half of my students are in wheelchairs and the classroom door doesn’t have a ramp. The racism of law and economy has a long wake, and so we’d be dealing with the effects for a generation or three even if the racism itself were altogether over, which it isn’t.

So I’ll keep trying to see black men as humans worthy of my respect (and my peace) first, and as black second. Because these are problems I have to deal with.

Because I write this after Trayvon Martin’s death, but I could have written it just as easily after Sean Bell’s death, or Oscar Grant’s, or Amadou Diallou’s… or Fred Hampton’s… or Medgar Evers’… or Emmett Till’s…

Shall I go on?

My fellow white Americans: we are not blameless, but blame does not ultimately fix anything. We whites need to admit what we’ve done, and more to the point admit what we’re still doing — and then start working on that. The battle against racism begins in our own minds, day in day out; the battle against racism continues on in the world we live in. No law will ever be sufficient without our private acts, and our private acts will never be sufficient either without setting right the law. The struggle we whites must wage against our own worst instincts begins in our hearts and goes on in the Constitution and the courts. It will continue until my generation is long gone, I think, for it is not easy to get the pollution out of poisoned soil.

My fellow white Americans, we have work to do.

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