The autumn air was crisp and cold as I walked into the parking lot behind the Marble Hill Projects in the Bronx back in 1984. Two local Black men quickly spotted me as an outsider.
“Whatchoo doing here white boy,” one demanded, moving in close and patting my pockets.
I was 19 at the time. My two adversaries were older, bigger, meaner and operating in their own neighborhood.
I was seconds away from a beating at a time when racial politics and police brutality had transformed New York City into an emotional tinderbox. However, the mood changed abruptly the moment I mentioned that I visiting my friend Stephen Lewis.
A notoriously short-tempered man, Steve was just as respected by his neighbors as his players on the The City College of New York (CCNY) Men’s Lacrosse Team. The 30-year-old public school teacher was a father of two, a former all-conference lacrosse player, and an athletic trainer for the New York Giants and the NBA Summer Pro-Am League.
The two locals immediately changed their tone. One pivoted away from me and cupped his hands to his mouth.
“Yo Looo,” the 25-year-old shouted up at the tower looming above us.
A window opened abruptly, revealing Steve’s scowling face.
“Leave him the fuck alone,” Steve shouted down, instantly divining the situation.
“Yo, we ain’t touching him,” my companion said obediently, patting my shoulder in a show of mock affection.
A second later he and his companion were escorting me upstairs to Apt. 13K.
Such encounters are par for the course when you’re a young white person in predominantly black communities in a time of racial friction. I lived in several during my youth, beginning with the Hilltop area of Tacoma, Wash. A stint in a public housing project followed, then some time in the Bronx, which culminated with my attending college in Harlem.
Those experiences gave me a keen sense for the temper of predominantly black communities and what I’ve been seeing and feeling lately isn’t good.
There are a lot of angry black folks on the streets, exuding the kind of insolent body language toward whites that was habitually used to express frustration with our racially biased society back in the 70s and 80s. You can see them walking slowly across busy streets and carrying on in malls and other public places as if the white people around them are invisible.
This kind of behavior never went away completely, but it certainly faded after the Rodney King riots rocked Los Angeles in 1992.
It’s back now and that’s not a good thing.
It’s a direct reaction to the racial grudge some law enforcement officers have indulged since 9/11, in response to the “us and them” rhetoric of George W. Bush.
It’s the same kind of faulty aim Geedub used after 9/11 to justify our invasion of Iraq, even though 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. A way to justify a personal score, rather than something needs to be done to make America safer.
The gloves came off for law enforcement and our military after 9/11, when idiot goons were elevated into leadership positions simply because of their willingness to hurt people. They’ve have done a lot of damage to the fabric of our society over the ensuring 14 years.
The string of police lynchings of people like Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray is one of the most visible results of their elevation.
More recently, the idiot goons have treated us to the spectacle of a televised pogrom against a group of Texas teenagers who were guilty of having fun in a bathing suit while black; a mass shooting inside a South Carolina church which claimed the lives of nine people who were guilty of praying while black; and the slaying of 17-tear-old Trayvon Martin, who was guilty of wearing a hooded sweatshirt at night while black.
The media’s recent glorification of torture by military interrogators via films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Green Zone is another consequence of the removal of the proverbial gloves. I mention this to illustrate just how tangible a thing it is and just how important it is for the military and law enforcement to put those gloves back on.
Abu Gharib and Guantanamo Bay are stains on our national honor. So are the idiot goons in blue.
This kind of garbage is what happens when you militarize local police departments and encourage them to treat minority neighborhoods like enemy territory.
Because one toxic patrolman can have a domino affect, radicalizing hundreds of people. That’s why we cannot afford to hang badges and pistols on the idiot goons of the world. Much less promote them.
The consequences can last decades and trigger spontaneous localized revolutions like the 1992 Los Angeles riots, the 1977 New York City blackout, and the 1967 Newark riots.
The latest flashpoint for the black community and their visible allies is the lynching of black motorist Sandra Bland. She allegedly committed suicide while being held in a Texas jail run by a sheriff with a history of racial issues.
My own sense is that Bland was the final straw for many blacks.
I’m already feeling it. Even in my new home in milquetoast Des Moines, Iowa.
I usually move through predominantly black communities pretty effortlessly by virtue of having spent so much of my life living in them. Lately, not so much.
A group of black teens behaved insolently around me as I walked through the downtown Des Moines YMCA-while-white on Sunday. It wasn’t an oversight on their part. It was calculated and intentional.
A few minutes later I was presented with a middle finger salute by a random brother as I drove home while white in my 4×4.
The street was talking to me and I was listening.
“What did I do?” I wondered aloud to my companion. “What is going on today?”
I’ve seen and felt a ton of social cues lately which are more difficult to quantify. They include hard looks from strangers in Des Moines’ normally docile black community.
You might think developments in a nice place like Des Moines, where many of the poor have homes and cars, have no bearing on someplace rough like the Bronx, where they don’t. I beg to differ.
I think that when black people in Des Moines become angry, white people better their ass in more militant African American communities like Detroit, South Central LA, and Newark.
My sense is that folks in our nation’s belaguered African American communities may have had enough with the whole nonviolent thing. And when that happens, look out.
What’s the moral of this column?
It’s sea change time. Black folks are transitioning from telling their own to “turn the other cheek” to telling their own to “take no shit.”
Because appeasing the beneficiaries of the status quo in our societal power structures hasn’t worked.
The clueless silver spoons who really run this nation are more sheltered and clueless than they’ve ever been in my lifetime. They send their kids to private school, live in gated communities, socialize in country clubs, and think the opportunistic, rich, blacks who work beside them are somehow representative of something. Without realizing that the only thing they represent are rich people.
These rich fools don’t realize that they’re inviting a 20 year pattern of racial strife by ignoring the recent police attacks on poor and middle class blacks. Along the lines of the open contempt for white authority which existed for 20 years after the assassinations of MLK, Malcom X and the Kennedys.
Sadly, when working class blacks grow frustrated with racist whites they tend to take it out on the working class whites beside them. That’s why the 70s and 80s were hard times for those of us who lived in and moved through black communities.
How do I know all this?
As I said before, I grew up white in black communities. The experience left me with the same kind of sense for black frustration that often alerts inner city blacks to undercover cops.
I can just smell the body language if you will. I can feel it in the lack of warmth from the black greeters at places like Wal-Mart and the comments on social media.
It’s completely palpable to me. Maybe because I’m not afraid to make eye contact and because I don’t believe I’m looking at someone different from myself.
For example, after the Trayvon Martin lynching in 2012 I was surprised and disappointed to see young black teens bending over backwards to appear unthreatening at a local grocery store. It was clear to me that someone in their families and churches had sent them the message they needed to cut a lower profile. I hate to see that shit, too.
Now, it appears to me that a less patient and nonviolent message is beginning to make the rounds. Just as it did in the 70s and 80s.
When elected officials play racial politics, the consequences are felt most intensely on the streets of mixed communities.
I’ve lived that shit and can still remember how frightened I was after the miniseries Roots raised back awareness about slavery in my junior high school in 1977. African Americans were furious and the targets of their anger weren’t just racist whites. They were also the working class whites who lived beside them. Often by choice.
People like me.
I can still remember being chased by a group of young black men after making a delivery to The Amsterdam News in Harlem in 1987.
Being white in Harlem.
New York City was on fire emotionally at the time, thanks to a series of racially charged incidents. They included the beating death of a black man in the Italian American neighborhood of Howard Beach; the fatal shooting by police of an elderly black woman named Eleanor Bumpers; the alleged rape and beating of the so-called “Central Park Jogger” by Black teens; and the racial politics of Mayor Ed Koch and an opportunistic young preacher named Al Sharpton.
When I tried to cover a showdown between the students and administration at my predominantly black and Hispanic college for the student newspaper in the midst of all that I was blocked from entering the boardroom. A black student I did not know told me the event was “just for blacks.” Fortunately, one of my friends intervened and set him straight.
“I’ve got to get out of here,” I told Steve afterward as we rode home in his battered station-wagon. “This city is going up in flames.”
“You’re my boy,” Steve said. “I won’t let anyone fuck with you.”
The worn tenements of the Bronx passed by below as we zipped north through heavy traffic on the Bruckner Expressway. The vehicles around us were filled with representatives of every conceivable human tribe.
“You know what Steve, if this thing comes unglued none of us are going to be able to do shit,” I said. “It’s not gonna matter that I’m a good guy or you’re a good guy. You’re gonna be on your side and I’m gonna be on my side and there ain’t gonna be no room for anybody in between.”
We drove most of the rest of the way in a companionable silence, mulling that painful truth over both individually and collectively.
That loss of individuality is the real tragedy of race-based conflict.
Sadly, our society attaches no value whatsoever to the kind of experience and street smarts you get from being white in a predominantly black environment, which is why you never see stories like this. That blind spot doesn’t mean my experiences are worthless – quite the contrary in fact – but it is indicative of just how blind we humans can be.
As for me, well I know what fuggin time it is.
It’s sea change time and I’m glad I’m in Des Moines for it.
What’s happening right now with race relations is not meaningless. It goes well beyond the inconveniences experienced by a handful of a wealthy African American celebrities, like Chris Rock.
The painful truth is that Black people are seething right now for good reason, and we’re all going to feel it for a very long time.
I believe part of the reason this development is invisible to many whites is because they no longer play active and visible leadership roles in the civil rights community. Our absence magnifies the misguided notion that injustices committed against blacks are not injustices against us all. It also puts a whole different spin on the whole Rachel Dolezal brouhaha.
Another element is President Barack Obama’s inability to help the black community in this climate without jeopardizing the progress he’s made in demonstrating blacks can be race-neutral presidents. Right now, that goal appears to be more important to him than suffocating police butality.
All of which means the only way to clear the decks for a crackdown on white racists is to elect another Southern White like Lyndon Johnson or Bill Clinton. Someone who can rip into them without being perceived as waging group conflict.
That’s how societal control systems work in our screwed up nation.
Greatest nation on the planet?
Please, don’t make me laugh.
We are a very confused country right now, which is turning its penchant for violence inward again.
How do I know?
I can feel it. And it’s not gonna have a happy ending.
It never does.
All of which brings to mind my time as a token white cornerback for the Marble Hill Spades amateur football team in the early 80s. Opposing offenses would invariably target me at the start of each game. Usually with a series of sweeps.
Steve and I both knew what was coming. He’d strip the blockers from his outside linebacker position and I’d pinch in and nail the ball carrier. Over and over, until they wised up.
We were sipping beers on the sidelines one day with a pair of older players from the rival Dyckman Projects team named Jesus and Juan Pablo, when things turned ugly on the AstroTurf field behind John F. Kennedy High School. A knot of players quickly formed and insults were exchanged between the Black and Puerto Rican crews
“Man,” Jesus said. “The young fellas are at it again.”
He asked Steve if he wanted to break it up.
“Naah,” Steve said. “Fuck’em, let ’em fight it out this time. I’m sick of their shit and I’m tried of breaking ’em up. I’ve got you, Vic’s got Juan Pablo, nobody can say shit to us.”
The dustup took a turn for the surreal when “Big Will,” a normally placid Marble Hill lineman, went berserk. The refrigerator-shaped man ran to the sidelines, hefted a 200 pound fiberglass pitching mound above his head, and began running toward the scrum with it.
The crowd parted before Big Will as he trotted through, snorting like a bull. He made a slow turn and was heading back for for a second pass, when several players ran to the sidelines to beg Steve and Jesus to calm him down.
“I ain’t doing shit for you stupid motherfuckers,” Steve shouted indignantly. “I ain’t no fucking security guard. Ya’ll ain’t paying me.”
The group cursed softly, turning their backs on us. Big Will made a few more runs, then collapsed in a peaceful pile and took a nap.
As for me, all I can say is that if America is gonna do this racial bullshit again Steve and I would dearly love to sit things out on the sideline. Just as we did that day with Jesus and Juan Pablo.
We’ll be having a cold beer and a smoke.
Y’all be sure and let us know when you’re done.