Ferguson, Racism, and Overcoming Fear

The job was taking much longer than expected. I didn’t know enough about it to understand the problem. It was clear to me that above the drop ceiling in the family room, a bundle of cables and various electronic boxes had been stashed out of sight. Somehow, this rat’s nest of cables was preventing the completion of the installation of high speed cable for Internet service to our new home.

The technician was clearly dedicated. I offered him something to drink. After a few hours, I asked if he wanted a sandwich or some fruit. He declined but made a comment that we weren’t like other people in the area. I explained that we had just moved to this community in St. Louis County from Pittsburgh. We knew nothing about the area. We were looking for a ranch style home so that we could maneuver my mother in her wheel chair around the house. That’s how we ended up in that neighborhood.

The technician, an African-American man in this 30’s, said that he couldn’t tell me much about the area. “I only come here for work. I wouldn’t come in my own car, just in the company van.” Of course, I asked why. He explained, “Well, if I did, I know I’d get pulled over by the police.” I smiled. “So, you’re telling me this is one of those areas where you can get pulled over for driving while being black.” He let out a hearty laugh. “I didn’t know white people knew about that stuff.” I apologized that this kind of stuff went on and said that if I knew it earlier, I wouldn’t have moved there. Over time, I came to understand that the problem wasn’t just in the incorporated village I lived in.

For four years, we lived in St. Louis County. Our home was about a 15 minute drive to Ferguson. We lived south of the airport and Ferguson is east of the airport. I was surprised by the racism I witnessed while living in St. Louis County. My mother’s home care aides were all African-American women. Every one of them was routinely pulled over by the police as they came to our home. They had their driver’s licenses, registration, and insurance checked, and then let go. They told me that the police never gave a reason for pulling them over. I spoke to the pastor of a local church about it. He was a white guy from back East like me. He explained that people in the white suburbs considered it a crime when someone made them nervous. “And they get really nervous when they see someone Black in their neighborhood, even when it’s their next door neighbor’s cleaning lady.”

As I’ve watched the news on the events in Ferguson unfold following the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer, I can honestly say that I’m not surprised. I’m not surprised the shooting happened. I’m also not surprised by the reactions of local officials and the residents. The only thing surprising to me is that this didn’t happen sooner.

Let me be clear: this kind of racism is not confined to St. Louis County. I experience it in Atlanta as well. Shortly after we moved to Atlanta, we were trying to figure out which Costco was most convenient to our home. We went to one. It was clear that in doing so that we moved past some invisible divide that separated integrated DeKalb County from an all white area. It wasn’t surprising when a year later that area incorporated into a separate city so as not to be part of DeKalb County’s majority Black government. That’s not the only part of metro-Atlanta dominated by white-flight. Further, it’s commonly believed that referenda to expand public transit in Atlanta routinely fail as ballot measures because predominantly white suburbs don’t want African-Americans to have easy access to suburban neighborhoods.

On some level, it would be easy to say that racism is just a white-on-black problem. I live in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Like any urban area, we have had some problems with crime: burglaries, theft of items from parked cars, and stolen property. What surprises me is that the calls for harshest treatment of young Black men in our neighborhood come from other African American people. As one woman said to me, “Ya gotta know how to treat the Black boys. Ya gotta hit ‘em hard so that they understand.” This was from an African-American mother living around the corner from me. Living where I do today, it’s clear that the messages of racism have been internalized and accepted. There are times when I think African-American people can be hard on each other in ways white people don’t treat each other.

It’s very naive to assume that just because an African-American family has lived in the White House for six years that the United States has gotten past racism. Instead, it seems to me that the visibility of successful African-American professionals results in the re-entrenchment of racism. The success of some African-American people taps into some deep fear about what could happen to white people as people of African descent succeed. When any minority group that’s been oppressed or marginalized moves into the mainstream of society, change does occur. But is it reasonable to be afraid of change? To fear that things become different? My answer is no.

Change is inevitable. Just as clothing styles from my teenage years have changed, just as we transitioned from one party-line telephone at home to each person carrying a cell phone, just as automobiles have become increasing fuel efficient, so all things change over time.

It seems to me that a primary root of prejudice is fear. Fear of those different from oneself often undergirds prejudice. But today, we face issues not limited to prejudice. Today, it has once again become acceptable to express racial hatred toward a people of African, Latin, and Asian descent. Too often we hear voices in society that prey on those fears and stoke the fires that lead to hatred. If there is evil in the world, this is surely a symptom of that evil. Tragically, many people of good will fail to stand against the social evil of racism.

Ultimately, I understand fear as a spiritual issue. As a Christian, I return to the words of Jesus found in Mark 5: 36 and Luke 8: 50: “Fear is useless. What is needed is trust.” Our fears of others, in whatever form those fears are experienced, are useless. It doesn’t do us any good at all. Fear leads us to paralysis. It shuts us down. If we find the ability to respond out of fear, it’s generally to lash out. It’s not productive.

Trust does not mean we look at life naively. Instead, living with trust requires a certain level of awareness and rationality. Trusting that other groups of people want to lead productive and meaningful lives as I do, I don’t view other groups with fear. Instead, I pay attention to behavior from individual people that may be untrustworthy. To put this in another context, it’s unlikely for me to have reason to distrust the Black teenager walking through my neighborhood wearing a hoodie and baggie pants. A person walking down the street with ear buds listening to music hasn’t done anything to merit concern, no matter how the person is dressed. But there are others I may have good reason to approach with caution, like financial services companies or politicians who have clearly demonstrated that their intent is not the benefit of others.

As a middle-age white guy, I know I can’t solve the problem of racism. But I can make sure that I don’t add to the problem by buying into the irrational fears that are a foundation for racism. I can also use my voice to speak out about the realities of racism in the world and make sure others pay attention to it. That’s what I’m doing right now. Racism is real in the United States today. It’s both personal (aimed at specific people in specific situations) and systemic (like white-flight communities that work to remain racially pure).

What’s the solution? By treating others I meet with respect and dignity rather than with distrust. When I saw that the high speed Internet technician was faced with a job that entailed much more than a routine installation, I knew he deserved a break. He worked on the installation for about five hours. I did the decent thing. I offered him a drink as well as a snack. I’d do that for anyone in my home in a similar situation.

Racism has created a systemic reality in which there are multiple standards for the treatment of people. I could drive freely down the streets of St. Louis County and was never stopped by police. But a different standard applied to the Black people who came to my home. That’s the America we live in. It’s not the America I want to live in. We can do better.

© 2014, emerging by Lou Kavar, Ph.D.. All rights reserved.

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