Afraid Of The Dark : Racial Animosity

The places I have run into the most resistance to my presence because of the color of my skin are mostly bars. Maybe it is the combination of alcohol and the concept of safety in numbers. Maybe it is the idea of a bar as a sort of sanctuary. Having a drink with people you know in a place that feels like home, even in today’s modern culture, isn’t much different than it was in the rum houses and the pubs that thrived back when the United States was founded.

I was in my own neighborhood bar a couple of years ago, a bar I had frequented enough to have a few friends and a rapport with the bartenders that found my favorite beer waiting on me by the time I sat down, when I ran into a guy on a mission. There was only one seat open, so I sat next to him. Because the bar was busy, I had to wait for my beer to be served. The next thing I knew, the guy sitting next to me turned in his seat, looked directly into my eyes, and said, "You know buddy, I think you’re looking for another bar."

He looked like all the other guys in for a few cold ones, guys whose company I’d grown to enjoy. So I said "what’s wrong with this one?"

He leaned in, as if I was a mouse in a cage in a science lab, his eyes piercing, a snide laugh escaping his lips. "I just figured – you know – a fellow like you might like this bar over in Roswell a little better."

I was kind of annoyed because my beer was taking so long, so I answered him before I realized what he was trying to say. "Dude, this is the closest bar to my house. Roswell is too far."

He snorted, his nostrils flaring, and took another tack. "I think you’ll enjoy the music they play over there better than the stuff they play here. You know, the music your kind of people like."

In half a second, he had taken all the prospective fun out of my Friday night. I was alternately livid and outraged, as well as angry at myself for getting too comfortable in a place where I stood out like a sore thumb. In another half a second, I’d made up my mind. "This sum-bitch is not running me out of this bar tonight" I said to myself as I glared back at him. Then a smile came over my face. I leaned in towards him. "Actually, I like the music in this place. Jeff is a pretty damn good musician. When he does Sinatra, he’s on the money."

Just then my beer showed up. The bartender was a woman who often waited on me. “Here you go, hun,” she said as she cleared away the bar area in front of the two of us.

The guy tried to bait me with a couple more heavy handed attempts to tell me I didn’t belong there. But I had my beer now, and since I planned on paying for it, and at least one more, I had as much of a right to my seat as he did to his.

Somewhere along the way he realized that I was a regular patron. His shtick calmed down considerably. By then, I had started grilling him about where he lived, and what he did for a living. By the end of the night, I’d found out that his ancestors had settled the area, building the first mill in these parts in the 1700 or 1800’s. In ninety minutes, we’d gone from adversaries to two men who at least had achieved a semblance of understanding the others position.

Do I do this all the time, as if I am Sidney Poitier, when someone is "afraid of the dark"? No. If I'm not in the mood to be bothered, I head out the door. But once I've made an investment, of time or money, I'm usually inclined to stick it out.

As infrequently as it happens, this kind of confrontation is going to happen again. We all know that this is a part of the deal you make when you move into largely white areas. Incendiary comments and racially insensitive innuendo are often directed at us in order to get us to engage in a tit for tat, a mano a mano shouting match that reinforces the self image of the aggressor. I guess I could prepare for something like this, could memorize a selection of vile retorts and phrases to couple with "motherfucker", forming my own cache of verbal grenades, but what really happens when you do that? And I’m too old to get locked up for knocking a man off a bar stool.

One of the things I’ve found in talking with people who are angry at black people is an almost religious conviction to reveal literally how they feel about us, as if it is their duty to present me with a laundry list of every bad thing every black person has ever been known to do. According to Entman and Rojecki, racial animus is consistent with "persistent pathological biases that include stereotyping, denial, political rejection, demonization and fearful, angry emotions" and "can include the extent to which white people see themselves as having group interests that conflict with those of blacks."

How does this happen, though? How does an otherwise sane person who lives in modern times get this way? One of my cigar buddies who grew up in Philadelphia opened up to me after awhile. One day, when we were watching a lackluster football game at his house, he wanted to talk. "I hated black people growing up. I just hated ‘em. My father worked for the transit authority. He had started as a bus driver and worked his way up to a supervisor. But he got stuck there. Every time he would come up for a promotion, he would come home mad, because somebody black had to be promoted first. He had that same job for a long time,” my friend said to me. “And we lived in the Italian section. My parents grew up there, my grandfather made shoes there, I went to school there, I went to church there – I didn’t know anybody black until after I graduated high school. What I did know was black people had kept my family from having a better life."

You will hear the words “affirmative” action come up a lot when you talk to someone like this. You may hear them assert that black Americans have been "given" their rights and fair share of opportunities, a semantic shuffle that sidesteps any acknowledgement that those same rights were in fact "denied" before being restored. In this world, black people are seen as being subjective, emotional, illogical, uneducated, and untruthful, while these white people see themselves as objective, reasonable, logical, educated, and truthful.

This group, though, closely mirrors a large contingent of us who are prone to do some of the same demonizing, the same stereotyping, the same denial and angry emotions. Even though these are largely defense mechanisms for us, we have to ask ourselves - how long we are going to continue to contribute to this impasse?

This friend of mine, who is a vice president at a multinational technology company based here in Atlanta, told me that day that even though he eventually came to terms with the idea of diversity, he still struggles from time to time with those old urges to stereotype people. He admitted that he was still prone to forming opinions based on information he’d gotten from listening to talk radio, even though he knew what the shock jocks were doing. I told him that I had some of the same struggles with old urges. We talked that day for a couple of hours, a sort of free-for-all where he asked dozens of probing questions about stereotypes he’d believed all his life, until we’d burned through a couple of cigars apiece debunking his misconceptions.

Do I do this kind of thing every week? Hell no. But there is one less white guy in the world who gets his information about black people exclusively from the media.

Talking about race in America is uncomfortable. It calls into question a person's own sense of morality. It forces people to examine closely all those inequities we have learned to rationalize instead of challenge. The Obama campaign strategists seemed to anticipate this right up front, devising as the backbone of their game plan what they call a "grass roots" organizing strategy. But what I see is really more of a hybrid of community organizing tenets and multi-level marketing techniques that has traded, from the beginning, on the power of personal relationships between individuals to build what is probably the largest peer-to-peer network we ever seen dedicated to a political pursuit.

The "Each One Teach One" feel the Obama campaign has is deliberate – it allows a message to penetrate into hard to reach, insular groups of people who are experts at holding their ground against new ideas, people like the guy at the bar or my cigar buddy. Because when you get right down to it, we all have enough things in common, even if they aren’t obvious at first glance, that can allow us to see the person in front of us for who they are, rather than who we think they are.

Why is this necessary? Why should I even waste my time writing about people like this, who are so outspoken about their bias against Barack Obama?

Because in many, many areas of the country, not just Wyoming and the Dakotas and Utah and Idaho, but states like Missouri and Michigan and Wisconsin and Ohio and Indiana and Pennsylvania, there will be many white people, according to the latest polls, who will be thinking about voting for a black candidate for the first time ever.

But these voters don’t live in a bubble, or in gated subdivisions that only admit “ambivalent voters leaning heavily towards Obama”. They live, work, eat and socialize with the people who are biased against blacks. Sometimes they are related to them. In any case, there will be constant jibes from this contingent between now and November, a constant flow of “he’s a muslim”, “he used to sell dope”, they think he’s the antichrist”, “he’s going to let black people take over everything” that will act like a river against the rocks in its bed, wearing away at those who have “lost their way”, hoping these new found Obama voters will come back from the dark side.

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Anonymous said...

I had to deal with that when I went to Law School. When you are the only one at the Eagle bar they feel justified in telling you they don't want you around. Now you are nice guy because I usually tell them very frank does it look like I am the type of guy that prays for peace, and they usually get the picture and walk away. I don't turn the other cheek at all towards that kind of stuff or wonder why. I live in a area right now where the white people wonder how I live here. I had one lady walking her dog stop and look at me then ask what's my name saying she never knew I lived here aka the blacks are moving in. Now I am not nice so I told her I have been here two years and walked across the street and watched her heart race as I approached her to finish the conversation. I also have a neighbor who is a hillbillie type who thinks I can't see that the MFer doesn't like me so I went out and confronted him and told him the feeling is mutual. Oh by the way I live in Los Angeles.

I think they are afraid of the dark. There's nothing we can do about it but prepare ourselves to meet them head on instead of cowering, jokingly dismissing it, calling it ignorance or walking out in disgust. Most people are cowards and when they see you are not going to backdown they gulp and put that racism back in the backpocket.

Like I said you are better than me!

Citizen Ojo said...

Good post. It leaves me conflicted because like Freemanpress you stood your ground. You both just did it in different ways.... One is more Obama the other is more Stokely Carmichael. Which one is right? That's the question.

Anonymous said...

Great post.

We NEED to tell more stories about racial reconciliation, even if it's on a small scale. Even if it's just two guys drinking a beer at a bar.

It's refreshing to hear a story that doesn't end in people hating each other.

Anonymous said...

imo, more obama and less stokely carmichael wins the day.

with the former approach, things get better. with the latter, nothing changes.

thanks for another excellent post.

Anonymous said...

there is a complementary post up now at steve benen's "political animal" titled RUMKA TACKLES RACISM HEAD ON....

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