Monday, August 6, 2012

Two experiences today

This is a problematic topic, one that is difficult to address honestly and openly. It's about race and stereotypes and two experiences I had today. The first was a conversation with a neighbor who was robbed in front of our building this past weekend. He was coming home late, got out of a cab and was approached by two men who said they had a gun. The robbers took the man's wallet, his watch, and his shoes. "Your shoes?" I asked him. Well they were very expensive shoes, he said. The amount of cash in his wallet was well into four digits. His stolen watch was worth well into five digits. My first thought, which I kept to myself was, "why would anyone carry so much cash and wear such conspicuous accessories on the street, so late at night no less?"

That's really a terrible thought if you think about it, blaming the victim for the crime. I once questioned myself when I was attacked behind our building several years ago. I was lost in thought when approached and grabbed from behind by two young men (with three accomplices off to the side) and later thought to myself that I really should have been more aware of my surroundings. I mentioned that to a neighbor who set me straight: everyone has the right to walk in their neighborhood without getting mugged, period.

After telling me about his misfortune, the man went on a prolonged diatribe about the neighborhood, society in general, and the race of the two robbers. They were black. I'd like to say I took the moral high ground, putting him in his place by telling him that no one has the right to blame an entire race of people because of the actions of a few. I really do believe that but sometimes, having myself been a victim of crime more times that I care to remember, it's difficult to put that all into perspective.

So I just listened, nodded my head and expressed my sympathy for his experience.

This afternoon it just so happened I was scheduled to do some work in two parks on Chicago's south side, one of whom is in the community of Englewood, a neighborhood notorious for its high crime rate. I've done plenty of work in the parks but have to admit that I'm often apprehensive about working in places where I'm the only white person. In my 53 years on this planet I've had exactly one bad experience being in the "wrong neighborhood." On the other hand, I've had many experiences of black people telling me to watch out as I was headed in the wrong direction. They didn't need to tell me why.

My most memorable experience along those lines happened in New Orleans. We were down there for a wedding and the day after the event, my wife and I planned to tour the city with a friend, his wife and his parents. They found a small ad in the paper advertising a jazz parade which was to take place in a neighborhood in Algiers, a section of town across the river from Downtown. After we got off the ferry, we set off on foot to find the parade. My friend went into a bar to ask directions. The joint turned out to be, for lack of a better term, a redneck bar. Its patrons looked at our lily white faces, and told us in no uncertain terms that we were taking our lives into our own hands by seeking out this parade, and by the way: "what the hell you wanna see that for anyway?"

But we were determined, it was in the middle of the day and heck we were from Chicago, we knew how to handle ourselves. So we started to walk in the direction of the parade. Soon, black folks including a police officer came up to us one by one and with genuine concern asked if we knew where we were going. No one was even sure if this event was for real. Now I could easily ignore the suggestion of a bunch of bigots to avoid the place, but I did get a little concerned when the people of the neighborhood were expressing their concern for us. One very nice woman in a car drove up to the site of the supposed parade, then drove back to tell us that yes the event would take place but added: "you folks be careful."

There's really not much more to the story other than when we got to the parade site, (in true New Orleans fashion the parade started about one hour late), it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Two marching bands or crews as they're called, were accompanied by a hundred or so people whooping it up and dancing in the streets. It was the real deal, not the manufactured mayhem of Bourbon Street. Ours were the only six white faces in the crowd but not a single person looked at us askance. I can imagine that the experience of six black folks in an all white neighborhood in the Big Easy, or Chicago for that matter, would be quite different.

We returned and met up with many of the people who warned us about their neighborhood and assured them we were OK, including a group of folks who invited us to join them in church for their Sunday service. To this day I regret that we declined.

Still, after talking to my neighbor, I was not looking forward going to Englewood today. It's been in the news constantly, especially on the weekends when the murder rate in the city skyrockets and it seems every other one happens in that neighborhood. The other park is in a more stable community but was in the news a couple of years ago when a police officer (and community activist) visiting his parents across the street from another park in the neighborhood, was shot and killed by men who were trying to steal his motorcycle.

Well needless to say, my afternoon went just fine. One of the guys working at the first park quipped that I looked like Elton John. I put on my big pair of sun glasses and he and his friends agreed that no, I  looked more like John Denver, although I don't really think so. It turned out that the manager of the second park I was to visit was the former manager of the first one. The guy who told me that worked at the first park and said in no uncertain terms that he preferred his old boss to his new boss. When I met the manager at the second park, I shared that with him in confidence. Using the information I had gleaned at the first park, I also asked him about the Little League team from his new park which beat the team from his old park. It turns out they won the city championship in Humboldt Park, my old stomping grounds. We had lots to share. I told him about my son's baseball tournament experience. It was like that with everyone I dealt with, and it was a great day.

After so many years of attention devoted to racism and intolerance in this country, we haven't come very far. This past weekend also saw the murder of six Americans in a house of worship in suburban Milwaukee. Since the perpetrator was also killed, we may never know the motives behind his actions, but it seems likely given his background, that he targeted these people because they looked different than him. The common assumption is that he mistook Sikh people for Muslims which if true is pathetic beyond being simply barbaric. One thing is certain, the man who killed six innocent people was white. So was the man who shot and killed several people watching a movie in a theater in suburban Denver a few weeks ago and oh yes, also the guy who tried to kill Congressman Gabrielle Giffords and in the process killed six in Tucson last year. Clearly we should be fearful of suburban white men too.

My wife and I are trying to teach our children to see people as individuals rather than as white people, black people, Jews, Gentiles, Muslims or whatever. Differences between people are readily apparent, they don't need to be taught. Avoiding prejudice in one's life is a lot easier said than done; biases that are taught, bad experiences, and basic human nature can poison the water. But the truth is that once you start talking to people of different ethnicities, creeds and races, you realize that we humans have a lot more similarities than differences. As my father always said: "people are people." Simple words to be sure, but they could not be more true.

They are the words I try to remember whenever I feel myself slipping into the abyss of intolerance, and are perhaps my father's greatest gift to me.

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