As I read the stories spreading across the Internet like wildfire about the arrest, release and subsequent dropping of charges against distinguished Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, and the cries of racism filled the airwaves, I found myself at a place where I’ve been too many times throughout my life, asking myself a simple question: “Why doesn’t this happen to me?”
I’ll be 50 years old in August and I can honestly say I’ve never felt like I lived in an inherently racist society. The few incidents of overt racism I’ve experienced were isolated and had no real impact on my self-esteem or my ascendancy as a man. I can recall only one case of actual discrimination and a complaint to the proper authorities put it to rest immediately.
Incidentally, note the distinction I make between racism and discrimination. Racism is a matter of the heart, and no law or mandate can change what’s in a man’s heart. That is why I think hate crime laws and other social engineering designed to change attitudes are a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
Discrimination, on the other hand, is acting on one’s racism in a way that subverts another. I’ve often heard blacks say, “We can’t be racist; we don’t have the power.” Yes, blacks can be racists; they may not have the power to discriminate and even then, that isn’t always true.
A white friend in a predominantly black neighborhood stood waiting at a local fast food restaurant for several minutes while others where being served ahead of him, even though they came in after he did. He eventually left without eating. In this instance, the blacks involved not only were racist in their thoughts and feelings, they had the power to act on their racism and discriminated against a white patron. I hope that brief digression is enlightening.
I’ve never been redlined when applying for a loan or barred from buying a home in the neighborhood of my choice, nor have I been refused or received inferior service at a restaurant. I’ve never been stopped by a cop if I was driving a rented luxury car – I don’t own one – and the few times the police and I have crossed paths, usually because I was speeding, they always treated me with courtesy and respect.
I can honestly say that my friends, regardless of race, love me unconditionally. When we’ve had tough times, they’ve been there for me and my family without hesitation. My best friend in this world is white and I call him “my brother from another mother.” He loves my family as if it was his own, and he would die for us. My life as a American who happens to be black has been a journey of blessings and grace.
Yet when I read stories like the one about Professor Gates, or about cops stopping motorists in luxury cars presumably above their station - “driving while black” – or about black children being denied access to a Philadelphia swimming pool, I ask myself, “Why doesn’t this happen to me?”
I feel like I live in a different nation than most of my black brothers and sisters. To them, America is a land of unrealized dreams stifled by racism and subtle but unmistakable discrimination. To me, America is the land where anything is achievable if you work hard enough for it. I am obviously, noticeably black but for the most part I’ve never been aware of being treated differently because of it. In my daily walk, neither my race nor the races of those which whom I interact is at the forefront of my consciousness. Race is not a dominant force in my personal life.
In my public life, however, especially among other blacks, race is the uninvited guest, the elephant in the room, the 800-pound gorilla, and it frustrates me because I don’t feel the same way they do. I have no anger, no bitterness, no resentment toward or apprehension about white people or my country, and no reason to harbor any of those emotions. Therefore, I am flummoxed when I am in the presence of such passion regarding race. I feel inadequate, maybe even a little like an outcast, because I share a skin color but not an ideology or worldview with other blacks.
It even affected my response to Barack Obama, the first person of color to become President of the United States. On the night he was elected President, the sight that stayed with me was the Reverend Jesse Jackson sobbing with joy – or was it disbelief? The outpouring of emotions in the black community with Obama’s victory were beyond description, but I felt cheated because I didn’t feel the same elation. There was a release of energy across this nation unlike any I’d witnessed before, and I was unmoved. There were millions of whites who reacted with more genuine passion to his victory than I did, and as much as I could grasp the historic significance of it, I didn’t find any joy in it.
I didn’t see Barack Obama as a black man during the campaign. I saw him as a liberal Democrat and, as a conservative Republican, yet another characteristic that makes me an alien within my own race, I disagreed with his positions on the issues.
In effect, I was judging him by the content of his character rather than the color of his skin. I am willing to bet, however, that my confession of emotional detachment from his election is going to make a lot of black people mad at me. It’s not what I want nor am I deliberately attempting to provoke their anger, but I fully expect it.
I’ve read Professor Gates’ interview where he gives his account of what happened to him, and I’m pretty sure I would have handled it differently. I’m not saying my way is the right way; I’ve not walked in Professor Gates’ shoes and our life experiences are different. My impression is that he “copped an attitude” with the police officer and that probably made the situation worse than it would have been otherwise.
Did he deserve to get arrested and spend several hours in jail? No. I’ve no doubt that the officer will be disciplined for his behavior and will be compelled to deliver a public apology to Professor Gates and the black community. Did Professor Gates’ distrustful posture with the officer help or hurt him, however, in bringing the situation to a quiet conclusion?
Why doesn’t this happen to me? I have a thought I’ve shared before but it bears repeating. I believe whatever you put first in your life governs everything that comes after it – your words, your actions, your thinking and feeling, the way you see the world. What you put first is critical to how you engage the world and its inhabitants.
I believe a majority of American blacks have made race the principal issue of their lives and it colors everything they say, see, hear or do. That is the only way I can explain how we can live in the same world but see it completely differently.
I also believe that what I put first is significant in not just how I interact with the world but how it responds to me. Jesus Christ is first in my life and He teaches me values that are anathema to most people in our “in your face” culture, like submissiveness, humbling oneself before others, and grace.
That doesn’t mean I let people run over me. Jesus didn’t do anything that wasn’t part of His plan and He was always in control. It does mean, however, giving other human beings the presumption of good faith, even when they don’t deserve it.
It means submitting to the authorities as the apostle Paul directs in Romans 13: 1-7. It means doing your part to be on good terms with all people as in Romans 12:18. It means treating people with kindness regardless of how they treat you:
"If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head, and the Lord will reward you."
This verse from Proverbs 25: 21-22 is saying, “You do good, and I’ll take care of the rest.” The reward is in being obedient, showing others the same grace the Lord shows us, and resisting the urge for vengeance, leaving it to the Lord.
Ultimately, I’ve lived a life of surrender to God and grace to men, approaching all with open arms rather than raised fists. Perhaps that is what has brought me the peace that so eludes the rest of society where the sticky, tricky topic of race is concerned.