What are we going to do about it?
From November 29 to December 5, 2014, I marched 134 miles across rural Missouri with the NAACP’s “Journey for Justice: Ferguson to Jefferson City.” Our goal was to seek justice for Michael Brown and his family and to reform racial profiling laws in the state and nation.
It was a transformative experience that forever changed my life, but returning home and re-entering my everyday life as a husband and adjunct professor of English in Denver, Colorado has been more difficult than I could have anticipated
I only recently stopped memorizing license plates at my local coffee shop.
The news consistently mischaracterizes the movement as it mashes sound bites about the deaths of young black men at the hands of police between ads for Charmin toilet paper and Viagra.
People at holiday parties at first fascinated by my experience eagerly dash away for more eggnog and Christmas tree shaped cookies the second my story takes a dark turn.
Teaching privileged, almost-exclusively white students at the University of Colorado and editing novels by privileged, almost-exclusively white writers makes me wonder what exactly I’m doing with my life.
I’m not the only one.
Fellow marcher, Reverend Carlton Lynch, has compared it to returning home from a war zone. Almost all of us on the march admit to locking ourselves in our homes in the days following our return. Protestors across the country have reported similar negative side effects of their action. Several of my friends in Ferguson are on medication for PTSD.
But there are many positive side effects as well, particularly the love I have received from strangers since returning home.
Before the New Year, I went to a dive bar in Boulder with some colleagues after finishing up grading for the semester. A black man sat alone at the near end of the bar in what I believed was a Georgetown Hoyas jacket. I had just returned from the National Action Network’s “March Against Police Violence” in D.C. where I’d met a group of protestors from Georgetown, so I decided to strike up a conversation with him as I ordered a drink.
“You a Georgetown fan?” I asked.
“Your jacket. I just got back from DC. Hoyas everywhere.”
“Oh!” He laughed. “Sorry. Took me a second to know what you were talking about. This is my daughter’s track team in town.”
“Oh ok, ok,” I replied, unsure how to proceed. “I used to run track. What’s her distance?”
He laughed again and offered the stool next to him. I quickly learned his daughter was a long jumper who had recently informed him she needed better coaching (“I’ve been her coach since she was crawling”), so he was waiting for her to finish practice.
“What took you to D.C.?” he asked.
“I was there for a civil rights march. I just got back from Ferguson a few weeks ago.”
Upon hearing this, he bought me a beer “for my journey,” and I shared my experiences with him for a few minutes.
Realizing I needed to get back to my colleagues, I invited him to sit with us. Unfortunately, he declined, so I bought him a beer in return a few minutes later. When I went to pay my tab the following hour, Cedrick was gone and so was my tab. He’d paid it in full, including the beer I bought for him.
What happened here is important.
Cedrick is a black man with a track-star daughter. I’m a young, married white man with no kids.
What did the two of us have in common?
Nothing but our humanity and our desire for connection.
Of all the lessons the Journey and my return home have taught me, the following may be the most important: black and white people are starved for connection, yet black people and white people simply do not mingle in 21st Century America.
Sixty years since Brown v. Board of Education and here we are in our day-to-day lives acting like it’s the 40s and 50s.
In general, in the USA today:
- Blacks and whites do not go to the same bars.
- Blacks and whites do not attend the same churches.
- Blacks and whites do not read the same books.
- Blacks and whites do not enroll in the same colleges.
- Blacks and whites do not work in the same professions or careers.
- Blacks and whites do not share families, let alone listen to the same music, shop at the same grocery stores, or live in the same neighborhoods.
- In many cases, blacks and whites did not even use the same vernacular.
The only connection most white and black people have today with each other is via television, film, the “news.” The rare moments of contact we do have at gas stations or at the movies or on our ways to work are mitigated by the masks we wear. Sure, there’s some connection forged in compulsory education and there are certainly counter examples, but, in general, blacks and whites do not mingle.
A combination of this segregation with our media culture’s penchant for the vilification of black people no doubt contributes to what social psychologists John F. Dovidio PhD and Samuel L. Gaertner PhD call “aversive racism,” that subconscious, “implicit” racism almost all Americans engage in everyday—that racism that causes so many white people to unconsciously cross the street when they see a black person ahead and why so many black people are involuntarily suspicious of white people who might approach them at a bar.
The United State is a segregated nation, and much of the fear that exists between whites and blacks is a result of this segregation.
Do I expect this to change in my lifetime? Who knows?
I found fathers and mothers and grandmas and brothers and sisters on the Journey for Justice who joined hands with me and looked me in the eye and marched through uncertain terrain, time and time again. I don’t know what else to call that but family, yet, upon returning to my life in Denver (roughly 5% African American), the only contact I’ve had with a black person has been my chance encounter with Cedrick at the dive bar.
- Sure, I’ve got a stack of books from the library about Black life, culture, and history…
- And I’ve really been enjoying that J. Cole album I just downloaded from iTunes…
- And I’m super pumped about all the black poetry I’ve been reading…
But lets’ face it, at this point I’m no better than all the other “good white people” who, in Brit Bennett’s article, “I Don’t Know What to Do With Good White People,” applaud themselves for joining the movement, crying out, “Look at me…I know that I am privileged. I am a good white person. Join me and remind others that you are a good white person too,” only to return to their privileged white lives the moment the activism dies down.
Me and Cedrick’s interaction is just one example of how blacks and whites can do better as a culture, how we can forge ties with one another, how we can do our part to heal this evil spawned long before any of us was conceived.
In me and Cedrick’s case, all it took was a Georgetown jacket, a bar, and two willing participants.
I am not proposing every white, married poet in America start looking for black bars to hang out in or that every black man with a track-star daughter in America should seek out white companions.
That’s not what happened here.
What happened here is much more simple than that: both Cedrick and I were open to getting to know one another, regardless of our perceptions of each other’s race, and we actually did.
I see no reason this can’t become the normal in America rather than the abnormal.
I see no reason Americans can’t make more substantial efforts to have real interactions with each other. That will look different for everyone, and it won’t always work, but it’s a step that “we the people” can take in the right direction.