Racism still pervasive in our society

Jun. 15, 2013 @ 10:10 AM

Last week I watched a short video designed by social scientists and brought to life by professional actors.  Scene one was a guy in his 20s trying to cut a lock off a bicycle in a public park.  Dozens of people passed by, but few paid him any attention.  A couple asked “Is that your bike?” and each time he said, “No.”  They kept going,

Scene two was identical.  A young man wore the same clothes, sawed away at the same lock on the same bike, answered the same question the same way, and quickly amassed an angry crowd confronting him with hostility and calling the police.

The first young man had white skin.  The skin of the man in scene two was dark.

I thought of this video clip again this week as I watched the crowd at “Moral Monday” in Raleigh.  I had invited a friend to go “rabble-rouse,” and she had laughed that the crowd was too polite to be called rabble-rousers.  Gov. Pat McCrory expressed gratitude that, “at least there wasn’t any violence.”

This was my third time on the scene and I certainly didn’t see anything approaching violence, or even much overt anger (though there is plenty to be angry about).  Hand-lettered signs, big and small, made their points, and voices combined in chants and songs and even prayers, but it was all, well, very polite.  Even when the crowd strayed off of the sidewalk, the police calmly asked them to move back, and they did.

But a realization dawned on me as I stood on the steps in the pouring rain last Monday and looked out on the crowds.  If we were not a crowd of privileged people in our business garb, medical coats and ministerial stoles, all of us sporting an awful lot of white skin, this scene might be very different.

Two weeks ago there were cops on horseback.  They just stood there, four in a row, and when the heavy rains came they turned and rode away.  Each week there have been police dogs on the perimeters, and rows of police standing, watching and waiting.

Had we been a crowd of “scene two” people, with dark skin, our straying off of the sidewalks might not have evoked the gentle reminder.  Instead, those horses might have ridden towards us.  Those dogs might have been commanded to herd us, force us hurriedly together, and thereby scare us, and anger us. 

Tripping over each other, someone in the crowd might have yelled, or pushed back or cursed, and a billy club might have come out, and it wouldn’t take much from there to all hell breaking loose.  The crowd would be blamed, of course. 

But like the video clip I described, these two scenes would have started with the same scenario -- the same number of lab coats and ministerial stoles, the same type of people doing the same things with signs and chants and songs and prayers.  Everything might be the same except the skin, and racism could raise the tension, feed the flames and shorten the fuses of those in power until…it all went wrong.

A report surfaced today of a 14-year-old Florida boy and his puppy playing with a friend on a beach.  A police officer intervened in the rough-housing between the friends, saw that it was just play, but then put the kid in a choke-hold when he “stared at him,” and tried to walk away.  The child and the puppy were both injured, and the kid has felony charges of “resisting arrest” to deal with.  The puppy was white.  The teen was not.

Racism is still pervasive in our society, especially here in the South, and it enters us bodily in the form of fear.  I wonder how I would have responded in scenes one and two with the bicycle in the park.  Would I have assumed that the first guy wasn’t stealing, but the second one was?  We can all learn to pause, question our assumptions, and analyze our fear before we act.

Susan Gladin is a freelance writer, United Methodist minister, and curriculum coordinator at the Johnson Intern Program in Chapel Hill. She tends horses and a home business on the farm she shares with her husband. Their two grown daughters live nearby. You may email her at sgladin@gmail.com, or write c/o The Chapel Hill Herald, 2828 Pickett Road, Durham, NC 27705.