On racism in America 

A few weeks ago, I reacted on Facebook to the murder of a black man by police, an event that is far too common in America. In this case, it was Philando Castile. I wrote:

At the risk of further alienating my white friends who are police officers or are married to police officers, I’m going to post about this problem. This is not a gun problem (although it IS a gun problem), this is not a mental health problem, this is not a religious extremism problem. This is racism. I’ve been to places where I was targeted or stared at because I was a white, blue-eyed, blonde woman, and it’s very disconcerting and unnerving. Can you imagine living like that every day in your home?

Castile’s murder makes me angry. But it makes me profoundly, profoundly sad. (At the risk of alienating another community, it’s more upsetting to me than Orlando.) Maybe it’s because I’ve traveled extensively, maybe it’s because I am living imposter syndrome, maybe it’s because I fight against the racism I saw and heard and absorbed by osmosis while growing up white in one of the most deeply segregated counties in America….I deeply believe that people are people and we have more in common than differences among us.

I think multiple things can be true: many cops are good and just doing their jobs. Their jobs aren’t easy. The militarization of the police as an institution is problematic, and we are increasingly seeing its effects. There are assholes and entitled people in every race and class and group. Being black in America shouldn’t be a crime.

Then I had to walk through a sketchy black neighborhood on my way to a CPS meeting. And I’m going to be honest about my own racism. I’m going to be honest about all the thoughts I had in that 0.8 mile walk. I’m going to be honest about the argument that I had in my head with myself. And I’m going to be honest that having that argument with myself was a privilege afforded me by the color (or not) of my skin.

Because walking through that neighborhood was scary. It could have been dangerous, but was it really dangerous? Was it frightening to me because it was unknown and unfamiliar? Was someone really going to hurt me? Did it cross their minds? No, don’t be ridiculous, I told myself. No one is going to hurt me, they are doing their business, living their lives. I can’t believe you’re thinking this; you sound like a racist asshole.  

I walked along Lake Street, where a bunch of cars were parked, with men exiting their cars and setting up some kind of BBQ on the street–actually on the street–with lawnchairs and other equipment. I passed some blighted lawns, a guy in the shadows of a doorway, a man and a woman having an exchange outside a corner store, a crowd of men in bright blue shirts in front of a car wash, one of whom stopped me to “ask you a question,” which took the form of offering me a job. It seemed like a joke, that he was ribbing me.

I turned north up Homan Avenue, toward Westinghouse College Prep. On that street, I passed a few more blighted lawns and two guys working on a pick-up truck on the street. I walked on broken sidewalk littered with broken glass. Cars sped past me in both directions on Homan Avenue. Several thoughts occurred to me: I am lucky to have this privilege. Would a black person who got off at the wrong stop arrive meander my neighborhood attract little notice? And I’d never send my kid to Westinghouse College Prep. 

I crossed under the tracks and came to the Westinghouse property. A beautiful football field and track, a brand-new building, 11′ high fencing. I’ve never seen 11′ fencing around a school before. Our school’s fencing is about 4′ or 5′ high. It so clearly delineated to me: this is nice, and you stay out. Some fencing is about keeping people in. This fencing was about keeping people out. Not about keeping the lucky kids who attend Westinghouse in, although I suppose it could be about that too: keeping the benighted few inside the football field to rattle their brains around in football helmets, away from the impoverished blight of the surrounding neighborhood. 

Then I entered the school snd it’s freezing cold auditorium and listened to CPS tell lies (spin if you prefer) about keeping budget cuts out of classrooms. That’s  a different kind of racism, for a different day. 


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