Prominent African Americans recall painful and life-altering brushes with discrimination
There's a Chris Rock joke that is emblematic of modern racism. It's from his 2008 standup routine "Kill the Messenger," and it's about Alpine, New Jersey, the posh town where he lives in a multi-million dollar home. His neighbors include Mary J. Blige, Patrick Ewing, and Eddie Murphy. Rock says Blige, Ewing, Murphy, and he are (or were) among the best in the world at their professions, legends in their line of work. They're also the only four black homeowners in town.
Then he says his next-door neighbor is a white dentist. "He ain't the best dentist in the world," Rock says. "He ain't going to the dental hall of fame. He's just a yank-your-tooth-out dentist." Rock spells out the point with a devastating punchline: "The black man gotta fly to get to somethin' the white man can walk to."
He's saying that in modern America blacks can ascend to the upper class, it's possible, but they have to fight so much more to get there because white supremacy remains a tall barrier to entry. The fact that a few slip through the infinitesimal cracks is a way of advancing the idea that white supremacy does not exist, an attempt to mask its awesome power, because the Matrix doesn't want you to know it's there. How can someone argue that Alpine, New Jersey, is racist when four black families live there, welcomed by the community and unharassed by police?
Of course this is a fake argument--these extraordinary blacks would be welcome anywhere and Alpine itself is not racist because it doesn't need to be. There are institutional systems in place that keep the number of blacks in Alpine and Beverly Hills and other exclusive communities very low, but not so low that Jesse Jackson can come and raise a ruckus. It's like releasing a tiny bit of air so the bottle doesn't explode.
Modern racism is a much more subtle, nuanced, slippery beast than its father or grandfather were. It has ways of making itself seem to not exist, which can drive you crazy trying to prove its existence sometimes. You're in Target. Is the security guard following you? You're not sure. You think he is but you can't be certain. Maybe the guard is black, so if you tried to explain it to a white friend they might not understand it as racist, but the guard's boss isn't black. Or maybe he is. Maybe what you're feeling are his ashamed vibes as if he's sending you a silent signal of apology for following you. Or maybe . . . now you're looking for the Tylenol for migraines when you all you needed was toothpaste.
And that's one of the basest examples of racism. That says nothing of the constellation of anxieties that could flash through you when the stakes are high--when you're applying for a job or competing for a promotion, or applying to a school, buying a house, or asking for a loan. When you're wondering if the white person who appears less qualified got the promotion because they were actually better than you or because they were better at networking upper management, or someone wrongly assumed you're not as good because you're black or . . .
I asked my 105 interviewees, What is the most racist thing that has ever happened to you? The response I received most often was indicative of modern racism: The answer is unknowable. "I imagine it'd be a thing I don't even know ever happened," Aaron McGruder said. "It would be that opportunity that never manifested and I'll never know that it was even possible." A decision is made in a back room or a high-level office, perhaps by someone you'll never see, about whether or not you get a job or a home loan or admission to a school. Or perhaps you'll never be allowed to know that a home in a certain area or a job is available. This is how modern institutional racism functions and it can weigh on and shape a black person differently than the more overt, simplistic racism of the past did.
The poet and Yale professor Dr. Elizabeth Alexander, who read an original poem at Obama's inauguration, said, "The most racist thing that ever happened to me would likely be a continual underestimation of my intellectual ability and capacity, and the real insidious aspect of that kind of racism is that we don't know half the time when people are underestimating us. We don't know half the time when we're being cut out of something because someone is unable to see us at full capacity. And so I presume that that happens, and has happened, a lot." She presumes this racist miscalculation of her brilliance happens quite often even though it never makes itself plain. How tragic.
"What's scary about prejudice is that it's not a measurable force," Malcolm Gladwell said. "We just know that it's all around and it matters sometimes a lot and sometimes it doesn't matter as much but we don't really know how much."
Many people said they could definitely put a finger on the most racist moment of their lives. Some of these stories were classic examples of blatant old-school racism: whites saying or doing things meant to keep blacks in a lesser place. Reverend Al Sharpton told me, "I remember once in the sixties we went down South. We were driving in a Cadillac. I was maybe seven or eight years old. And my father had been an amateur boxer so I felt nobody could beat my father. We stopped in North Carolina and they told him he couldn't eat in that restaurant. And that was the first time I saw my father emasculated. And I never forgot. He got back in the car and pulled off and didn't stand up to them and I didn't understand why. And that bothered me. And he explained to me what racism was. He said in parts of the country blacks are barred from basic things like hotels. And I'm seven, eight years old. I didn't understand. But I remembered and I think that's what sparked my activism."
As inspiration, racism can spiral in many different ways. The artist Fred Wilson said his family was ostracized when, in the 1960s, they moved to Westchester, a suburb north of New York City. As their home was being built someone put up a sign that said niggers go back to Africa. Wilson ended up making no friends in town or at school and spent a lot of his childhood by himself. "We had a big backyard so my fantasy life flourished because I was alone all the time, which is why I am the artist that I am today."
"The most racist experience you have," said Ben Jealous, president of the NAACP, "is the one that's worst, and the one that's worst is usually the one that transforms the way you look at the world." These moments of suddenly discovering the pain and lack of status and power that attends being black is what comedian Paul Mooney refers to as "a nigger wake-up call." Skip Gates calls them "the scene of instruction" and he says they exist in classic black autobiographies from slavery to recent days. "For W.E.B. Dubois it was a little girl who wouldn't take his Valentine card," Gates said. "For James Weldon Johnson in Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man it was when the teacher said, 'Would all the white scholars stand up,' and he stands up and she goes 'No, you can sit down.' It's always a moment of trauma. There's always something lacking, a deprivation that makes you realize what being black means."