As America debates race yet again, Rita recalls an incident in racial profiling that occured close to home…
America is going through another one of its periodic Rorschach tests on race. The O. J. trial, Rodney King, now Trayvon Martin. Not to mention the long litany of names going back through the Civil Rights era and before. Reasonable voices urge that we need to have a conversation, as though we’re not talking about it enough. But any cursory sampling of radio, TV, and the blogosphere shows that the conversation is taking place, at top volume. Even President Obama has weighed in. It just doesn’t seem to be bringing people any closer together. Instead it reveals the yawning gap in perceptions between black and white.
One thing that all sides agree on in the Martin/Zimmerman case is that it all began because Zimmerman perceived Martin to be suspicious. Whether that was reasonable or a case of racial profiling is where the disagreements begin. On that issue I do have something to add to the conversation. A few years ago there was an incident of racial profiling in my neighborhood.
I live in a very diverse community, but my immediate neighborhood is a bastion of upper middle-class homes, almost exclusively white. Quite frequently students go door-to-door selling everything from Girl Scout cookies to Christmas wreaths and other fund raising efforts for their schools and sports teams. Given the neighborhood these young people are usually white. One day a black teenager came to the door on a similar mission. He had his clipboard with information about his team and was dressed in standard teen gear, at least nothing that was noteworthy or memorable. He moved on to the next house and I promptly forgot about it. After all, what was there to remember about such a common, everyday occurrence? But as it turned out, some of my neighbors didn’t feel the same.
A week later I received an email inviting me to a “security” meeting for the neighbors on my cul-de-sac. I decided to go out of a mixture of curiosity and a desire to be neighborly. The meeting leader began by talking about how there were a lot of “strangers” passing through the neighborhood recently. How “they” used the pretext of going door-to-door for some cause in order to case the houses for burglaries. As the conversation went on it was clear everyone was talking about the black teen who had been collecting for his sports team the week before. He was a “stranger,” he was “they.” No one said the word ”black” or “African-American.” They didn’t need to. They had a whole coded vocabulary at their disposal. Finding their concern a bit ridiculous, after all there had been no actual burglaries, I spoke up and asked, “Isn’t this a bit of an overreaction?” They all looked at me as if I was from another planet. Perhaps they thought that, not being American born and bred, I just didn’t get the subtext of their conversation. They were a roomful of perfectly nice white people. They would never consider themselves racist. But it was clear that they had just engaged in racial profiling. We had never had a meeting like this when any white teenagers came to our doors.
All across America, day in and day out, as people of different races encounter one another they are making similar snap judgments about “strangers.” Most of the time, as was the case in my neighborhood, there are no serious consequences. This black teenager left the neighborhood unscathed, oblivious to the judgment passed upon him. But occasionally and too often, as happened in the Martin/Zimmerman case, the encounter blows up into a tragedy, a tragedy that reveals the full depth of the racial divide.
While the Zimmerman trial held center stage in the news I happened to be reading a book about the history of sugar plantations in Barbados (Sugar in the Blood: A Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire by Andrea Stuart). In the chapter on the early seventeenth century settlers the author describes a society divided along class lines between wealthy planters and their indentured servants. As more and more African slaves were transported to the island there was a gradual change to a society divided on color lines. By the end of the seventeenth century, Stuart writes, “The dichotomy of black and white became the defining factor in every encounter and every conflict on the island.” How much had changed by the time of an early 21st century encounter in Florida? The answer to that question is written in black and white.