“I can’t imagine what it’s like to be white, even for one day,” my friend said wistfully after experiencing another in the series of both subtle and overt snubs clearly related to her dark skin-one of many that I have witnessed during our 30 years of friendship. Sometimes, when the actions of a rude clerk were impossible to ignore, I would chide the person, hand them a “Thank you for your kindness” card, and say, “You really need to be kinder to people” while I simmered with barely suppressed anger at what my friend-and all black people, regardless of stats-endures on a daily basis.
Is she another “angry black woman” with a chip on her shoulders braced for possible insults? You bet-but, more than that, she is scared. No matter what she says, teaches, or does, no matter the extent of her sacrifices for her family, she still cannot keep her sons protected, no matter if they are presidents or 12-year-olds; nor her daughters, for black women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population.
Aside from my friend’s many personal experiences with racism, here is one of the reasons why she is so chronically traumatized; when her 19-year-old son was a top student on scholarship at a small southern college, he was arrested for murder while walking down the street. It took her several weeks to raise the money for bail and to find a local lawyer who was able to prove her son’s innocence and get him out of jail.
Whatever happened to him in jail-God only knows-he was so scarred by being held behind bars for a crime he did not commit that he dropped out of school. Ever since, he has gone from job to job, self-medicating with alcohol and drugs for PTSD. This once promising young man seemingly is doomed by the experience of that incarceration. His mother, too, never has been the same-and never will be. It took years to pay back the thousands she had begged and borrowed to get him free.
Why are white people so afraid of black people, especially young black males? Is it some twisted psychosexual fear of them stealing white women as the number of whites in the population declines? Is it some primordial fear that with slavery, Jim Crow, and mass incarceration, on some level whites are afraid of retribution? Is it the media that profits on highlighting young blacks as criminals? Most whites-good, kind people-would be baffled and dismayed if it was pointed out to them that it is passive, unconscious racism bubbling just under the new national hobby of the frightened Americans, hating Pres. Barack Obama no matter what he does or says. They are ignorant of the daily land mines of oppression most blacks face, or that the laws and policies their politicians vote for harm people, who ironically are mostly white. How difficult it must be for black people to trust white people under ongoing oppressive laws and policies and the constant denigration and attacks, especially on young black males.
Many years ago, my family was friendly with a family from Barbados. Our kids were the same age, played together, had sleepovers at each other’s houses, and went on day trips-all piled into my station wagon. Their mother and I walked our five-year-old sons to the first day of half-day kindergarten with their new backpacks, shiny shoes, and excitement at finally going to school in Media, Pa., a town that prided itself on integration. At noon, we waited for the boys to come home. When they arrived, her dark-skinned son was in tears and my son looked confused. What had happened? The crying boy tearfully described how the other students in the class called him a N*****! Shocked, I turned to my boy and asked him what he had done. He shamefacedly admitted that he, too, had called his best friend the N word, a word he never had heard uttered at home-our home, where we once were honored to have Martin Luther King Jr. come for dinner. How could this be? My sweet, innocent boy did not even know the meaning of the word. Their tears were wiped away and hugs given to both boys. As they went off with a snack to play, their mother and I wept in each other’s arms.
I had to acknowledge that, despite what children are taught in the home, the racist culture had invaded their kindergarten class, and no doubt all classes in this mostly white, suburban American town. That culture and its peer pressure already had poisoned the minds of innocent children. Years later when my grown son and I discussed the incident, he had no memory of it. I doubt if his dark-skinned friend would, like my other friend’s son, ever be able to forget, learning at a tender age that whites could not be trusted to stand up for them when attacked by other whites.
This is at the core of our national psychosis which grew out of control after 9-11 and the resulting militarization of unchecked police forces now waging war against their citizens, especially young black males. The tragedy of this cultural fear was highlighted just recently in Texas-a video showing a black woman stopped by police while driving, handcuffed in front of her four young children for what turned out to be a “mistaken identity.” Imagine being stopped by police who, without explanation, handcuff you with guns drawn, ignoring your cries of concern for your children, who sat watching wide-eyed with fear, as men with weapons drawn approached the car. One of the children gets out, a boy, and holds his hands up in the manner of Ferguson’s Michael Brown, the “Don’t shoot!” posture that has become the symbol of cops gunning down unarmed black youth. Surely what these children and their mother endured will leave a lifetime mark on them.
Never once did I ever have this fear for any of my four sons; the one time they got in trouble, the police brought them home to their parents to discipline. I was scared, but grateful, that, unlike their black friends, they were not to be locked up. We all live in Ferguson, Mo., though not enough whites recognize the disparity of our unquestioned privilege and entitlement that is at the core of the issues facing black citizens. What has been happening in Ferguson and so many other places is not an anomaly.
Judith’s article originally appeared in the November 2014 issue of USA Today magazine.