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Burnett's Urban Etiquette

Friday, April 11, 2008

Real Talk About Race: Chapter One

Greetings friends and frienemies.

As promised yesterday, I'm kicking off the first of what I hope will be a long string of weekly conversations about race relations, things we know about one another, things we should know about one another, things we think we know about one another and things about one another that just shouldn't matter.

I thought I'd make this first installment personal. Others will be personal. But as we talk and as folks open up, I'm hoping you guys will share stories with me and we'll talk about your questions and speculations too.

So I was having a conversation with a good buddy yesterday and he asked me one of those "why do black people..." questions. I didn't take offense. This is my buddy, and I knew that if he was starting a question out that way, then he really, genuinely wanted to know. And his most comfortable reference point to black people was me, his friend.

Anyway, the question was in reference to two news events that happened in Florida this week. One of them, right here in the Miami area, involved the guy(s) who allegedly murdered a roadside fruit vendor. And the other event was a brutal beatdown applied by a group of teenage girls against a solitary girl in Lakeland, Fla., in the central part of the state.

After these two incidents occurred, I heard about them on the radio before I actually saw photos of the people involved in either case. So as I was chatting with my buddy my first reaction was to shake my head and grimace.

His reaction to mine was to chuckle and say "go ahead, say it." So I said it: "Please God, don't let them be black!"

I was joking, but then again I wasn't.

"Why," my buddy asked. It's a question he's asked me before, and usually I brush the question aside. This time though, he persisted and asked further, "why do black people do that?"

By the way, the girls in the Lakeland beatdown were white. The fruit vendor murder suspect is black.

So let's answer this question and wrap this up. Many black people fear that we still live in a time in which we can't be sized up - for better or worse - stricly on our individual actions. Many black people fear that when one of us screws up we're all going to be scrutinized. It may not be so, but its what some of us fear.

Let's be honest. When you think of an accomplished black man, you do think - even if just for a fleeting second - about him being black. It's not a knock on anyone. It's what we do in this country...still. Conversely, many black people today have personal experiences, memories from times past, and stories shared with them from times even further past about their color being held against them, without consideration for the content of their character. I know people who look like me who compare notes about being lumped into this category or that.

Think about the last time you saw a white man paraded on TV for having committed a horrendous crime. Did his skin color cross your mind, or did you just think "Crazy S.O.B?"

What about the last time you saw a black man in the same setting? C'mon, did his look even cross your mind? I'm a black man. I can admit it. Yes, I thought for a second about him being black. For several seconds. Maybe you didn't.

What can I tell you? I swear to you every time I hear about a horrible crime I silently say that little prayer, 'cause I don't want the offender's behavior to be used as an excuse by some closed-minded person to treat all black people like we all committed a violent crime.

I joked with my buddy that I need to learn to think more like white people in these situations. Why? I've never seen him or any other white person I know cringe when a white person is splashed across the TV in handcuffs and accused of some horrible crime.

I asked my buddy why. He said "I don't know that person. Why should I feel guilty about what they did? Why should I worry that I'll be connected to him. I don't know him. No one is gonna look at me differently 'cause some white guy in Bismark went nuts!"

Refreshing. He's right and logical and appropriately confident. Usually after I say my silent prayer, I chant a silent mantra to the effect of what my buddy said. Sometimes it works to soothe my mind. Sometimes it doesn't.

I'm not ashamed of who I am. You can say I'm proud. But I fear being lumped in with bad people who look like me but don't act like me.

That's my word. What are your thoughts?

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  • James, your fears are warranted. My experience here in the Buckle of the Bible Belt is that black people as a whole are judged by the behavior of a few. You only have to look as far as the comment section on my local newspaper's website to come to that conclusion.

    I've also seen this played out in my real life too. I once asked a man who had phoned in to place a classified ad if he wanted the ad to go into XYZ paper, a publicatin that reaches an urban area. Out of fear, he responded, "I don't want 3,000 black people knocking on my door!" Another older woman called me and asked me if I knew anything about a particular handyman who had advertised in our paper. She had dialed the phone number in the ad, and had gotten an answering machine. She said that she could tell that he was black, and was worried about him coming to her home.

    The behavior of a few determining the perception for the many.

    Of course your friend doesn't say a silent prayer everytime a white person commits a crime. He hasn't had to deal with generations of negative stereotyping.

    When I stop getting phone calls like the ones I described above, then maybe I'll stop holding my breath when I watch the new.

    By Blogger GrizzBabe, at 8:31 PM  

  • I hear what you're saying James and I can identify with a concern of feeling - is he one of us. I have had such concerns myself do to my experience of being born into a Jewish family. While I do not practice that religion I still have it as a heritage.

    So...I often have such similar reactions but it is a hard thing for me to speak of these matters.

    In our now society where many organizations seem to be urging us to be competitive all the time in every way - one sees this in the media of course especially visual arts but it has permeated our society so deeply that I am concerned it may last for a while. There are in our world institutionalized aspects to racism.

    Ultimately it feels to me that our escape from this kind of life will be in finding our common ground. You and I come from different worlds and yet our common ground I feel is much more than that which keeps us in our own brackets, as others might say, and it is that common ground that encourages me to continue to provide what I provide, to do as I do and to act as I act in the most benevolent way I am able.


    By Blogger Robert Shapiro, at 10:18 PM  

  • Grizz, deep comment. Moving. I think those calls would have made me salty. Those are the kind of phone calls that I think would frustrate me more than anger me, 'cause they'd just make me toss my hands up and wanna give up.

    Robert, thank you. You're right, you know. Common ground is where it's at. The problem - and I'm gonna post on this next week, I think - in this country we have to figure out how to call a draw. No one wants to say OK, I concede this or that. It's "No, you first!"

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 10:32 PM  

  • You asked "guys" for comments. I'm not a guy.
    I notice color in every person I meet -- skin color, hair color, eye color.
    But, I do admit that when a news story leads with "grandmother" doing something bad. I don't cringe and wish so many grandmothers would stop doing bad things. I don't worry about them ruining my reputation.

    By Blogger Christine Thresh, at 11:31 PM  

  • Christine, my apologies for the "guys" reference. It was general in nature. Now, I'm with you on the noticing of color. There's no way to just not notice it. But the question is - unless you're just curious and find yourself drawn to look at an individual for a prolonged period - do you just glaze over the color, and does it become an immediate afterthought, or does it contribute to your opinion of the person you're looking at? But with color out of your equation, then I admire you for not feeling the pressure of criminal grandmother's behavior ;>)

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 11:43 PM  

  • I stopped looking at race a ong time ago. To me, that's just a ... a Democrat thing to do. I prefer the content of a man's character to anything else about him.

    On the other hand, I do sometimes get curious about things like "shaving bumps" and "Hair process". Just because the guys I used to locker with, long ago, had different hygeine habits and I always wondered why. The shaving thing always freaked me out, and I always felt bad for the guys who had to go through so much trouble to avoid that bumpy face thing. Does that make me a racist? I hope not. No more than asking the albino guy about the difficulties he has seeing certain things makes me a- what, a colorist?

    I'm proud to be a Man, and act like a Man, and I strive to be the Man my father was. I respect anyone who can say the same thing.

    Great post, James. Thanks.

    By Anonymous og, at 11:55 PM  

  • Thanks, Og. I'm glad you weighed in. Always welcome.

    I can clear the air for you on your curiosities though. The razor bumps occur in some black men, because our facial hair is both coarse and often curly. And when a black man with coarse facial hair shaves it too close, what often happens is as it begins to grow back, it starts to curl and that can cause ingrown hairs. Thus the razor bumps. As for the processed hair, that's a whole 'nother post. In fact, I'll do a post on that. But the abbreviated answer, without the historic explanations, is that some black people process their hair simply because they like it straight. Others will tell you there are some underlying psych and social issues at work with the hair processes too, but that's another post altogether. What the hell? We have time for one example: When my grandfather, James Sr., was a young man he and his guy friends got their hair processed with what was essentially a perm-on-steroids. They called it a "conk" back then, and would go to the barber and ask that their hair be fried, dyed and laid to the side. I saw old pics of my granddad with his conk and it cracked me up. I told him he looked like Sammy Davis Jr. or Nat King Cole. I asked him why he and his friends tortured their scalps like that, all for straight hair. And he answered that they did it for the same reasons all young people have: to mimic the stars of the day, who in this case were overwhelmingly young white actors. The black rock, soul, and R&B singers were just coming on strong. And it's always been the American way to push a specific image of beauty onto the public. In this case for men - white and black - that image was slick-haired stars. Black guys couldn't achieve that look naturally, my grandfather said, so they got their hair conked. By the '60s, of coure, the black pride/power movement was strong and natural looks like the 'fro came back strong.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 5:39 PM  

  • I'm going to put myself out here on a limb James...

    I get upset when Jackson or Sharpton get on the defensive horse and ride.

    Tables have turned so much that I feel just the opposite as you do.
    If a "white" person does something to a "black" person it is now a Hate crime. But the same thing just doesn't seem to be true in reverse.

    So, when I see a crime, especially one acted upon a black I always think "darn, I sure hope it isn't a white."

    *I believe all crime - YES ALL CRIME -- is hate crime. You are just as dead from a knife or a bullet whether someone determines its hate or random. I've probably said that before.

    By Blogger Pamela, at 8:50 PM  

  • There's a generalization that works pretty well here. If you feel pressured, or villified, discriminated against, etc. because of your race, religion, country of national origin; then whenever the news produces a reason for the masses to validate the 'inferiority' of your minority, regardless of how baseless, you will react defensively.

    People in sales have similar problems, believe it or not. We make decisions on other people in seven seconds or less, based on their physiology, and the way they dress accounting for over 70% of the decision. That research was done in the 50's and gets revalidated periodically in academia. The relevance is that we rarely bother to take the time to really find out about a person, and we all suffer for it.

    In the next hundred to one hundred and fifty years, more and more people of different races will have sex together. Eventually, we'll all be grey. In the process, whites may lose their fear of blacks, and people in Gaithersburg (to pick a name with no basis in fact that I know of) will lose their fear of people from India, and Christians and Muslims and Jews will find common ground.

    By Blogger The CEO, at 12:40 PM  

  • Pamela, youre not out on a limb. It's a reasonable fear. I hadn't thought of that - of white people fearing that white-on-black crimes will always be perceived as hate crimes. Also, I have had other white friends say they feel like there's always a greater furor over white-on-black crimes, but not as much over black-on-white crimes. Not sure I completely agree. I think it's more to it than simply a black and white - no pun intended - perspective. But again, it's something I hadn't thought much about. Something for me to think about. You may have given me next week's Real Talk post topic. BTW, I agree with you that all violent crimes are hate crimes. But, if it can be proved by law enforcement and the courts that a particular criminal injured or killed someone because of that person's skin color or any other characteristic over which the victim has no control, then I have no problem with that criminal getting a little extra dose of punishment.

    Monty, I always admire your optimisim. I agree with you that in 150 years - if we're all still here and walking upright and talking and what not - there will have been so much ethnic mixing that we'll all probably be "gray." But I'm not so optimistic about folks from different religions finding real common ground and not being enemies, even 150 years from now. Regardless, I like your analogy - that this sort of fear is applicable to anyone who feels pressure over their "minority" characteristic(s), even salesmen ;>)

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 2:21 PM  

  • And if we're really lucky, in 150 years, scientists will find a way to process the cocoa bean to make to a health food that isn't fattening nor promoting of tooth decay. Now there's optimism! The Healthy Chocolate!

    By Blogger The CEO, at 5:21 PM  

  • Here here! I'm all about healthy chocolate.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 5:26 PM  

  • I feel much the same you do when I see any Hispanic on the news especially if they are specific enough or accurately speaking of a Mexican. I am Mexican and I hate how we are portrayed on the news and anywhere. I am not lazy, I am not dishonest, I don't pass the buck at work, I get to work on time, I work late, I don't abuse my lunch breaks - but I am expected to be that way because I am Mexican and when my white friends do it - it's not such a big deal because they look like everyone else. I am one of very maybe 5 or less Hispanics where I work and I am probably the only Mexican. I am working on my MBA and I am a hardworking honest single parent. At work though the lazy people I know are white and they are the biggest backstabbers. I may as well be Cuban, El Salvadorian, Puerto Rican or Guatemalen because if it speaks Spanish it's Mexican.

    By Blogger C, at 7:16 PM  

  • Seems like we've been thinking about the same thing lately James. The anniversary of MLK's death got me started and then the piece young TV producer David Wilson did got me fired me up like I was 18 again. I wrote a entry on my blog about it earlier today. I think before I saw that story and did some research I would have been surprised that you cringe and hope a black didn't do it when you hear about a crime. I know that I never read about crime and even give a second thought about the possible race of the culprit. I know that more poor people get punished for crimes, so I guess I believed that class was the defining in our society, not race. I realize now I just might be very wrong.

    By Blogger wordsonwater, at 8:04 PM  

  • I've never even thought about this perspective before, to tell the truth. However, I do agree with you that we still have a LONG way to go with race relations before we can stop generalizing based on color.

    By Anonymous Karmyn R, at 9:10 PM  

  • James,
    I've thought about my last comment about grandmothers. I realize I do get a shudder when the news reports about terrible car accidents caused by elderly drivers. I think, "Oh no, not again." I think with our aging population elderly drivers will be stigmatized. I have white hair and worry about this.
    Back to race. Faith Ringgold has a very interesting racial test on her site. I took it and it really got me to thinking about our relationships. The URL is:

    By Blogger Christine Thresh, at 10:19 PM  

  • C, that's deep. Again, I hadn't thought about it - you not only have the worry about a color stigma, but then there's the matter of getting lumped in with any number of different ethnicities that speak Spanish and possibly have brown skin.

    WoW, I'm gonna come by in a bit and read your post. In a weird way, the whole fear thing is something I don't think about either. It just sort of happens like an instinct.

    Karmyn, I generally hate cliches, but you know what they say: one step at a time.

    Christine, I took a racial test on a PBS site a couple of years ago. Freaked me out. The test results said I had media-driven bias against black people. Talk about soul searching. Anyway, I'll head over to Faith Ringgold's site and check out her test.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 11:14 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:07 AM  

  • There is a story I read once that goes something like this,"..
    A man was sitting there on an old wooden box on a street corner, he was dressed in the clothes of a homeless man and had deep blue eyes surrounded by in-washed skin. He held a sig that said "Please show me where the treasure is". People passed the man every day without batting an eyelid, until one day, a gentleman stopped and asked, "What treasure is it you seek Sir?" He replied, "It is something that cannot be reached dear passerby..something that everyone wants yet is just so..insurmountable". "What then, is within the box you sit upon?" asked the passerby. "Why, I am not sure right now, it has been so long since I even looked inside", replied the homeless man. He proceeded to get up, all weary like, and he opened the box beneath him. Inside was the most wonderful of all treasures. It was his Life's Diary and his most precious possesions, that of the photos of his family. The passerby then said, "You see, it does not take much to look closer than you have been for many a year to see where the treasure lies, it is often closer than you think...usually, it is what is within us". The passerby then walked on his merry way to work, leaving the man on the street with his wonderful treasuers to look over...and make a life anew.
    You see, the man could have been any man we know, no matter the color of skin, age or decent, we all have gifts within us. Sometimes, people are just lead astray by their own life situation.
    You are a good man, you know who you are, and well, hopefully those "bad people who look like (you)" will someday realise they went down the wrong path, and can make their journey anew :)
    Have a great day :)

    By Blogger Cazzie!!!, at 3:53 AM  

  • There are times - usually when reviewing historical events, though sometimes when watching the news,
    eg: Gandhi, MLK Jr, Slavery, Human Rights in general,
    that I to feel ashamed to be white.

    In the meantime, yes I notice a person's colour - of hair, eyes, skin, clothes, whatever. & I try to treat all people as people.
    Even when they don't act like nice people!

    By Blogger Bronchitkat, at 8:37 AM  

  • Since the news might be the only time some people see African Americans, I also pray that the next suspect won't be Black(I usually capitilize this word since it's about my people as a whole).

    I've witnessed the "lumped in" thing for Spanish speaking people. Many here in Atlanta use the term "Mexican" for anyone of Latino descent - it annoys the hell out of me and I'm not even a part of the group.

    My friend, an architect from Colombia, gets this all the time - it's assumed he's a day worker if he goes to Home Depot - He has nothing against anyone from Mexico (or from anywhere in the world) and no problem with day workers, but it's messed up that based on his dark hair and an accent he's judged by so many.

    I love that you're doing this!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:38 AM  

  • Anonymous, you are a loser and clearly off your meds again. Don't be a coward. ID yourself. Better yet, go back on your meds and author your own blog.

    Whoah, Cazzie, that was great! I swear I'm gonna co-opt that story and when I have kids some day, share it with them. Excellent. Thank you.

    Bronchitikat, you speak to some of the points I'm trying to make here. I appreciate your empathy. I know others do. But don't be ashamed to be who you are. You're not responsible for the actions of folks from the past (and a few from the present). I agree with you though on noticing color. Good or bad circumstances, I always tend to notice a person's look. Maybe it's the journalist in me, maybe it's the nosey person in me. Maybe I'm just naturally curious, but I always do a quick sizing up any/every time I see someone new.

    Jali, it is important to point out, like C did as well, that this sort of generalization is felt by all sorts of folks, not just black folks. Mrs. B used to get annoyed at a school she taught at back in Milwaukee, 'cause the kids would refer to every Asian person they saw as Chinese, even though they were mostly seeing Hmong and Laotian people. Parents need to explain to their kid the differences. But they need to do it in an academic way, not in a PC way, I think. And if a kid's too young to know the differences, tell them to just play it safe and refer to that person as Asian. Thanks for the good words, and we'll definitely extend this series into the forseeable future. This first chapter went well, I think.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 12:14 PM  

  • When I see an accomplished black man, say someone like yourself, I do feel differently for them than I would a white man in the same situation.

    The feeling I get is pride. I'm proud of the person for overcoming the things I see everyday. They're usually minor, but annoying enough to make me see that racism is an everyday thing.

    Does this make me an elitist jerk?

    I don't think so. I'm very observant, I see the people who say that they aren't racist acting racist on a subconscious level. If I enter a store at the same time as a black person, 98% of the time I'll get assisted or served first.

    If I am sitting on a bench in the mall and I look at a white person enter a shop, just to look around and browse then leave, and 5 minutes later a black man go in and do the same thing, I can see the clerk will watch the black guy a lot more closely than the white guy.

    These store clerks might have black friends and wouldn't think twice about an interracial relationship maybe but subconsciously they can give black people a documented reason to be angry at completely unfair treatment.

    For my part, I'll continue to do what I can. Treat everyone I meet with the respect I would want.

    By Blogger Wavemancali, at 1:59 PM  

  • WavemanCali, thanks for the insight. As usual, very thoughtful. Again, I hadn't thought about how much bias might be subconcious in nature. Not saying that makes it right. It certainly doesn't make me feel any better about it, but it does speak to the power of generations of imagery and how tough it is to consider individuals away from the pack. Keep up your good work.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 2:11 PM  

  • "I'm not ashamed of who I am. You can say I'm proud. But I fear being lumped in with bad people who look like me but don't act like me."

    James, like you, I'm a proud black man. But some years back I quit caring about how I was being perceived by others when someone my color did bad things.

    Up until that time, I did. Not anymore.

    Now I just don't give a damn. I reckon it this way: people of all races do and have done bad things.

    As it stands, I have an equal-opportunity disdain for anyone who hurts another, regardless of race, color, religion, or national origin.

    I see the people who say that they aren't racist acting racist on a subconscious level.

    Thanks for your candor.

    We see it too, but it's no longer fashionable for us to say we do.

    When we do, we're told we're "playing the race card, or the victim card."

    May I tip my hat to all the others who have posted here--you have taught me a thing or two.

    By Anonymous before the mayflower, at 2:57 AM  

  • Before the Mayflower, good stuff. Insightful. Thank you.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 9:34 AM  

  • i agree with before the mayflower too. all sorts of people do all sorts of bad stuff, and i have no time for them. they deserve all that they get, in this life or the next, karma, whatever. i do and will continue to call them idiots or stupid bas***ds.

    i live in sydney, which is a huge melting pot, maybe as close to grey as you can get, and there is too much happening by too many different races to worry about what race they are. it comes down to an idiot doing something stupid, and that's all

    By Anonymous insomniac, at 1:51 AM  

  • "...the last time you saw a white man paraded on TV for having committed a horrendous crime. Did his skin color cross your mind,"

    No, but I have to admit that every time I hear a report of man caught parading around in women's clothing, I still say, "Lord, please don't let it be Uncle Stan."

    But seriously, it is indeed a shame that people have to say a prayer at all over characteristics about which others have generalized.

    By Blogger The Sarcasticynic, at 7:30 AM  

  • The CEO, above, describes basically how I feel about this issue in the first paragraph of her comment.

    I live in one of the poorest regions in Italy (I'm American but with heritage from here) and whenever there is a crime committed up north, I do think "I hope it wasn't a Calabrian!" because it's a common stereotype that southern Italians are criminals.

    The perceptions/stereotypes are already there, and I think it's only natural that we silently (or not so silently) hope they aren't perpetuated with "evidence."

    But also? Immigrants from Eastern Europe and Africa are very much discriminated against here, and every time I hear of a crime, in addition to hoping it's not a Calabrian, I also think "I hope it wasn't an immigrant!" because I don't want those stereotypes perpetuated it's not even a prerequisite to belong to the group to have that gut reaction, at least not for me.

    Is that elitist? Patronizing? Sensitive? Boh.

    I also wanted to say something about a part of one of your comments, James, namely:

    "The problem - and I'm gonna post on this next week, I think - in this country we have to figure out how to call a draw. No one wants to say OK, I concede this or that. It's 'No, you first!'"

    I know this isn't what you're talking about, but this is *exactly* how I feel about the Democratic presidential candidates right now. Really off-topic, I know, but I just wish one of them would be an adult and say "You know what? I'm not going to play this way. My opponent actually *is* a good candidate. We agree on a lot of stuff, but here's where we differ--decide for yourself who you agree with and who you think is better equipped to lead this country."

    Instead we're stuck with "Well s/he started it!" and "He's elitist!" and "She's a liar!"


    By Blogger bleeding espresso, at 8:20 AM  

  • Insomniac, I can't wait till it gets that way over here on a full-time basis.

    Sarc, good to hear from you. Long time. I agree such prayers are a shame. As for your Uncle Stan, I have an Uncle Wimpy. We all have that special uncle.

    Bleeding Espresso, you stirred a childhood memory in me. I recall when my family lived in Sicily that some Italians from the mainland were sometimes mean to the Sicilians and addressed them as if they were bad people. A few times a year we'd catch the ferry to the mainland so my mom could go to Brendisi and buy a year's worth of birthday and Christmas gifts at the inlaid wood factories, and we'd notice that even on the mainland, Italians from the South seemed to catch a lot of grief from some of their brethren from the North. Guess there's some of this everywhere on Earth. As for your political analogy, no worries. In the blogosphere "off topic" is a flexible, fluid standard.

    By Blogger James Burnett, at 1:03 PM  

  • What a great idea James.

    Well, I don't think I'm divulging any secrets by acknowledging that here in California we are obsessed with race. Who's what heritage, who's racist, who's "open minded" and yadda, yadda, yadda. It seems like everyone is preoccupied with being correct on this issue while simultaneously trying to adopt an air of being blase.

    So yeah, I know that I personally notice the race of people who make it across the screen of my evening news but - like those around me - I've grown up knowing that the proper thing to do is feign color-blindness.

    We had an interesting issue with regard to criminals and race relations in my own neighborhood back in late 2005 and 2006.

    First of all, my neighborhood is hyper mixed with a few white families being sprinkled throughout several black, hispanic, Asian, Indian, Pakistani... well you get the picture.

    So anyway, five families (all black) moved here from New Orleans as part of a Hurricane Katrina relocation and immediately started raising hell (at the time we had no way of knowing that several of these people had already worn out their welcome in a relocation effort in Oakland and had been moved from that city to our neighborhood to "start fresh").

    At any rate, the kids ranged in age from 11 to 16 and immediately commenced breaking into houses, vandalizing cars, and half a dozen of the boys even ganged up on a teacher from the high school down the street, dragged her into one of the many sloughs, and beat her so badly she was hospitalized for weeks. All for an iPod. I feel it only fair to posit here that it's not like we simply "suspected" they were responsible for these crimes. These kids were caught in the act on many, many occasions.

    We are a nice neighborhood with some level of affluence and now we had problems. The relocated kids were expelled from school and didn't have parents who seemed to care whether they went anyway. They wandered the neighborhood all day with nothing to do and making trouble along the way.

    At the time I was vice-president of the neighborhood association and had the pleasure of having a stack of police reports dumped on my desk with the simple command, "You're in charge. Do something about it."

    ...but I really didn't want to. I'll admit it. I was a cowed by the fact that the young criminals were black and not shy about accusing us - their neighbors - of being racist every time we so much as looked sideways at them. So instead of contacting local law enforcement I invited the kids to our block parties, tried to involve them in clean-up activities, many of my fellow neighbors (all white) picked up job applications and tried talking to the boys. In the end our feel-good measures were a laughable attempt to avoid the problem and achieved nothing.

    However, what was interesting was the fact that it was the black folks in our neighborhood that eventually screamed the loudest about getting these kids out. While the white folks like me operated under a cloud of ambiguous guilt, the black folks took the reins and sent a simple message to the miscreants: straighten up or get the hell out of our neighborhood. Many of our neighbors who are black took a much more simple and logical view of the problem; if you are breaking the law and causing trouble then you need to go away. At the same time I sensed that there was a tad bit of "get these kids out before they reflect poorly on us" but that's my own speculation.

    Since then things have improved mightily around here. The kids from the Katrina families, sadly, did not "straighten up". Some were incarcerated and those that weren't have long since been evicted. However, the relationships between all the neighbors here has developed beautifully and we've all become quite a tight-knit group. Sometimes things get a little uncomfortable if one group feels like they're treading on delicate ground but mostly we all get along and I figure that the occasional discomfort is the result of many different people of many different backgrounds just trying to be sensitive to their neighbors, right? So in a sense, that discomfort is a sign that something here is going right.

    Holy cow is this way too long. Sorry for throwing up in your comments section!

    By Anonymous Steph, at 9:24 AM  

  • With all respect, it's unlikely that your white buddy had ancestors who were slaves. That tends to bestow a certain confidence by default that other people don't have.

    There is a Yiddish word, "yiches" which refers to the power bestowed on those who come from families of high standing in the community, while being ones OWN yiches means being judged solely on your own qualities and achievements.

    Would that we were all considered our own yiches, and not loved or hated on the basis of acts committed by others.

    By Blogger heartinsanfrancisco, at 10:41 PM  

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