We, as white citizens of this country, owe it to ourselves to try as hard as we can to imagine what it is like being black in America, and, more urgent, what it’s like growing up black in America. We need to try and place ourselves in the shoes of a black person in the town or city we grew up in, and wonder how different our lives would have turned out.
If I had been born black I doubt very much I’d be where I am today. I think I would probably have done some jail time and maybe be dead. As a person who has always been rebellious and defiant and at times confrontational with irrational and unfair authority, I don’t see how I would have survived as a black man.
I don’t see how, as a free spirit who wanted nothing to do with the grown-up world, I would have been able to hitch-hike to Mardi Gras in New Orleans from Los Angeles as a 25 year old and, after spending every cent in a week of partying, landed a job as storekeeper on the riverboat Delta Queen.
I was the only white employee among deck hands, porters, cooks, waiters, maids, etc, and somehow I secured the best job on the ship, hired by the captain (a white man) without even offering a resume, but just on my word as a stock-boy and order writer in LA.
You think there wasn’t resentment, even hatred of this lucky white guy? You better believe it. I understood it, and deserved it, despite the fact I was a liberal who attended an integrated high school. I had close black friends there and while serving in the army.
The black men on the Delta Queen knew they could not hitch-hike across America without getting killed, much less roll onto a ship as a complete stranger and cop the best job with the most responsibility.
They were instead to be thankful to have dead-end jobs that paid diddly squat, put a roof over their heads, and fed them. It was the best shot they had as young men with no future and older men who’d paid their dues to Jim Crow America.
That’s the way it was in the south, where I did not grow up in the 1950s as a black man, and was forced to to sit at the back of a bus, to drink out of my own fountain, to never dare use a white man’s bathroom no matter how desperately I needed to urinate or move my bowels, to lower my gaze and shuffle like a beaten down lowlife whenever I approached a white woman on the sidewalk; or was forbidden to enter a public swimming pool, because, evidently, I was dirty, scary, amoral, and, yes, a monstrous potential rapist and murderer.
How would I feel about myself walking in those shoes as a white boy? I’d probably be pretty pissed off. I’d probably have a pretty big boulder on my shoulder. I’d probably want to fight and kick someone’s ass. I’d probably want to show any image of authority, if the occasion presented itself, a riotous rage, a fury at the bastards who had reduced my life to an existence one step above slavery.
I grew up in the 1950’s in Compton, California, where our cops were an even more brutal extension of the LAPD. If you were white and talked back you got smacked around and sent home with a warning. If you were black, you got smacked around and went straight to jail.
Once you were in jail you got booked. Once you got booked you had a record. Once you had a record you had an even harder time finding a good job or even getting into the army. This wasn’t the south. This wasn’t Jim Crow. This was paradise Southern California.
Thing is, blacks in Compton kept their mouths shut. They trod lightly. They did not dare come to our white part of town, because they knew it wasn’t only the cops who would pull them over and take them straight to jail, but the white thugs who used the N word constantly would jump and beat them half to death like a frothing dog-pack
In those days, I never considered what it was like to be considered a nigger, or called a nigger. I was too young and arrogant to try and place myself in the shoes of a black kid. What I did realize was that as an athlete they were hungrier and more punishing when I competed against them, and that in high school many of them (not all) exuded an anger that was palpable, and aimed at white kids.
Was it because they could not go to places we could, nor do things we did? Was it because all movies and TV shows were about white people, and if a black person showed up in a film he or she was usually an obsequious servant? Was it because they were completely left out of anything seen as worthy and important in our country, outside of sports and entertainment?
Today, many white people, mostly young, are united with their angry black brothers and sisters after the hideous murder of George Floyd, and they are protesting, not rioting. They seem as angry as their black friends. But they are not. They cannot feel what a black person feels. They did not grow up knowing that wherever they go they are marked as dangerous and largely of no account and potentially, if they are not very, very careful,, candidates for the prison industry of America, where hopelessness and misery exists and has existed for centuries.
Yet white people are trying. They observe white vigilante types belonging to nationalist militias storming the capitols of a state like Michigan, dressed like commandos and holding automatic weapons, and nothing happens.
They get away with it. If you are white, put yourselves in some black shoes when you see this in America, and try and imagine how you would feel. If you see no problem with this, then we are in bigger trouble as a country than it appears we are.