The Most Racist Thing That Ever Happened to Me
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."
New York Governor David Paterson had a classic scene of instruction when he helped integrate a segregated school as a nine-year-old entering the fourth grade. "I don't think I knew what race was," he said. "And then all of a sudden I found out in a couple of weeks what race was and I think it was a little disturbing because for the first time I felt that there were limits on me. And it was clear that some of the teachers kind of looked down on us." This sense of being taught the absence of importance, of relevance, of status, of power, of humanity runs throughout the black experience. The painter Barkley Hendricks said: "There's that area of thinking that you're really not painting people until you're painting white people."
In 1964, in West Virginia a fourteen-year-old Henry Louis Gates Jr. broke his hip and went to a doctor who x-rayed his knee, which was also in pain. The doctor saw nothing wrong with his knee and deemed his pain psychosomatic. "He said that I had a nervous breakdown because I was an overachiever," Gates said. "He said colored people weren't supposed to do as well as I had done. I had been stressed out and there was nothing wrong with my knee. White guy thought I was imagining things. And that's why I walk with a cane and I've had a dozen operations since I was fourteen." Gates remains bitter about the whole thing. "I hope that motherfucker's burning in hell."
Duke Professor Wahneema Lubiano, who was introduced to me by a brilliant college professor as "one of the smartest people in America," internalized a racist comment and it shifted the course of her life. In the early seventies, in Pennsylvania, in high school, she took the National Merit Scholar's test and placed as a semifinalist. But when she went to the guidance counselor, he suggested she go to secretarial school. "And I believed it," she said. "I went home crying but I believed it." Lubiano ended up going to the University of Pittsburgh but she left after freshman year. "I dropped out, thinking, 'You're too stupid to do this,'" she said. "The damage had been done." She didn't return to college for ten years.
When she went back she went to Howard University and it changed her life. "I was surrounded by really smart black people who were pretty casual about it," she said. "It's not like you walked into a class and sat down and said, 'This is a miracle there are so many smart black people here.' No, you normalized it, it was routine. And in that way it was really nurturing because being smart was routine." For someone with tremendous mental capability and a self-esteem so fragile that it could be broken by a slight comment from a white man she respected, Howard was a life-saver. "By the time I finished with Howard I could go to grad school at Stanford because I was ready."
In the fall of 1960, in Greenville, South Carolina, an eighteen-year-old Jesse Jackson tried to use the public library. He was home from college and needed a certain book for a speech he had to give. "I went to the colored library," he told me. "Librarian said, 'I don't have that book but my friend at the Central Library does. I'll write you a note and I'll call her. She's my friend.' I ran about two and a half miles. I was so anxious to go because I had to read the book, write the speech, and memorize it. When I got there I went in the back of the library and two policemen were standing there talking with her. No doubt she told 'em I was coming.
"So I give her the note. Said, 'May I get the books?' She said, 'I'll have 'em in about six days.' I said, 'I need 'em so bad.' I knew not to ask to sit down. I said, 'Can I go down in the stacks to get them?' She said, 'Six days.' Policeman said, 'You heard what she said.' I went out the back of the library and I saw the sign said public library. I cried."
Jackson said what made him cry was thinking of the man he called his father--his stepfather, Charles Henry Jackson. He'd fought in World War II but was barred from certain places on the military base that even Nazi POWs could enter. That sort of bizarre restriction could make your head explode--these evil, captured, enemy soldiers had rights that valiant American soldiers who'd risked their lives did not? How could one understand or accept that? "Couldn't get it out of my mind."
The following summer when Jackson returned home he and several college classmates went to jail for trying to integrate the public library. "It was kinda my baptism in officially fighting back. I'd grown up to resent the limitations, resent the walls; that was the first time I'd taken definitive action." It was the beginning of the activist the world would come to know and revere.
Deep in the Jim Crow South, amidst backdoor entrances and policemen always ready to maintain Negro second-class citizenship and white men who pulled men out of prison in the thick of the night to lynch and decapitate them, Jackson saw his father debased and physically endangered and refusing to accept it. And when Jackson encountered racism that broke his heart and saw a life ahead of him that would insist he have fewer rights than a Nazi prisoner of war he said no, at the risk of death, I refuse, and in the name of justice, I refuse. Because my father taught me better, even if he didn't realize it. At his scene of instruction, Jackson began to blossom into greatness.
Adapted from Touré's Who's Afraid of Post-Blackness? (Free Press/Simon & Schuster, 2011).