More readers talk about overcoming their discomfort of neighbors of a different race:
I’d like to add my $.02 to the thread, from personal experience. Years ago, I was assaulted in my apartment in L.A. At least ten of my white friends either assumed or asked if my attacker was black. I told them no – the only black guy around was my big, scary-looking neighbor who rushed to my rescue when he heard me screaming. When the attacker was caught, he turned out to be (a) a serial rapist, suspected in hundreds of crimes and (b) a white, married Mormon. I hadn’t thought much about racism up to that time, but the lesson couldn’t have been more clear, and I’ve never forgotten it.
A few years ago, I lived in and around NYC jumping from sublet to sublet with two travel suitcases and one condition: $500 rent. This brought me to a plethora of places I had never experienced in college: Harlem, the Bronx, Queens, etc. And my Mom was terrified. And honestly, I was too. A child of the ’80s, I had grown up with the firmly held belief that New York was a war zone. This was on top of the fact that I lived in closet spaces that had a curtain (or hung up sheet) in place of a door.
But money was tight, so I just buckled up. And after a few months, it barely even registered. I felt safe – safer than I had ever been. At first, I wrote my parents off as paranoid, but over time I began to realize that things just used to be a lot worse.
Having said that, I’ve never erased the dread that seeps in when I find myself on an empty street – late at night – with a stranger my brain identifies as poor, male, and non-white. But there’s a difference between having that fear and acting on it – and certainly institutionalizing it. I could concede to Cohen that his idealized version of racial profiling could reduce even more crime, but like terrorism, there is a point where pure, practical security infringes upon liberty and justice for all.
I currently live in Crown Heights, a notable, new and exciting (and “gentrifying” – wink, wink) part of Brooklyn.
There’s still lots of black people here, and I hope it stays that way. There’s some tension in that regard, but I like to think the twenties to thirties-something white folk (and rough white equivalents – Asians/Indians like myself) and the black folk of all ages get along pretty well. There’s one bar in particular around here that’s known as a very mixed spot and it’s always a great time and no one – white or black, Asian or Jew – fears being shot. New York’s gun laws must help – so too, I will admit, the city’s policing tactics. NYPD is everywhere, but not in a very conspicuous way. It’s very smart, and I honestly admire their tactics, in this regard at least.
Some of the black people in my neighborhood are undoubtedly “thuggish” to the outside world. Sometimes they stand in groups of 8-10 dudes, maybe a few chicks, and they are not dressed in corporate attire. I’m not going to pretend some uneasiness didn’t cross my mind the first few times I walked through such groups of people. But I got over those feelings very quickly and now it’s like whatever. Sometimes I hear echoes of those feelings whenever my parents ask me if living in Brooklyn is safe, which makes me cringe every time I hear it. Granted, I’m a tall brown dude myself. But all the white girls I know, including my roommates, travel pretty long distances on foot at night without any trouble.
So I understand the feeling Richard Cohen is describing, but so do most people, and we all got over the feeling very quickly. That’s why Ta-Neishi is so spot on with calling it banal racism. Yes, we all sometimes feel afraid around people who are unlike us. That’s almost the most uninteresting point ever made. The interesting part comes in learning to overcome that feeling.
There is a video that has been making the rounds lately, and if memory services, The Dish featured it [we did]. It’s of Dustin Hoffman being interviewed about his role in Tootsie. He makes the point that society’s stereotypes about what a woman should be had “brainwashed” him into cutting himself off from meeting many, many interesting people. That idea also applies to race.
In the past two weeks in Denver, I have been checking out at a grocery store and a Target, and black ladies were the checkers. They were warm and I just felt that they were very loving people. When I was younger I had a lot of black male and female friends, mostly acquired by playing sports. I loved being around these friends. I don’t know what it was, but they were just warm and full of heart and funny. Not that my other white friends weren’t also, but it was different.
Now that I am a middle-aged white guy with a family, I find that the opportunities for those friendships are simply not as easy. It’s like after school – high school and college – my path just does not cross with blacks. And I really miss them and that opportunity.