Maybe it’s time for a modern-day John Howard Griffin to write another “Black Like Me.” In 1959, Griffin, a white man, medically darkened his skin. He spent six weeks traveling through the rigidly segregated Deep South and kept a journal of his experiences as a black man. In the bestseller he wrote afterward, he described how accustomed he became to the “hate stare” he constantly got from whites.
Fifty-four years later, it has been replaced by the “fear stare,” according to most blacks and other dark-skinned males of succeeding generations, including the man who became president of the United States, Barack Obama. He is trying to reach those of good will when he describes the reaction men of color can still expect in times that have changed, but not enough.
He decided to try to clear the air after the Sanford, Fla., verdict that found George Zimmerman not guilty of charges connected with his fatally shooting an unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin as the young black was simply walking through the gated community Zimmerman was patrolling as a neighborhood-watch volunteer.
“There are very few African-American men,” said the president, “who haven’t had the experience of being followed when they were shopping in a department store. That includes me.” Same for “walking across the street and hearing the locks click on the doors of cars” or experiencing “getting on an elevator and a woman clutching her purse nervously and holding her breath until she has a chance to get off.”
He is calling on Americans to “do some soul searching” in the wake of the Zimmerman acquittal. For starters, it would mean that whites, who don’t grow up dealing with suspicion purely because of color, open their minds to accepting that it is a regular, humiliating part of the black experience, even in this day and age. They should also try to be receptive to the idea that many or most of them discriminate in the same way.
The fact that we clearly have made big strides, in some ways, makes the problem even more difficult than facing bigotry back in the Jim Crow day. There was no need then for “stand your ground” laws to kill someone who scared you; there was unapologetic lynching. We were racially separated — at work, in school, in our neighborhoods. We’ve made substantial progress since then, but if we’re going to continue moving forward, it’s vital that we understand the nature of toxic but more subtle narrow-mindedness today.
The death of Martin can be a tragic catalyst for change. His parents are clinging to that hope. After the president spoke, they issued this statement: “Trayvon’s life was cut short, but we hope that his legacy will make our communities a better place for generations to come.”
That will take some understanding to bridge the gaps. All those TV ads and other efforts to depict a happily mixed society distort reality. Our worlds still are too separate. While group rallies have a cathartic effect, it will take each of us individually to open ourselves up and give credibility to those who daily endure demeaning stereotypes based on their color. For starters, we need to face our remaining prejudices.
© 2013 Bob Franken
Distributed by King Features Synd., Inc.