Even in The Rhino, the trusty old Camry I drove from ages 17 to 21, it was a long way from New York City to rural Tennessee. In 2006, I made the drive with my close friend, a black girl who I was just beginning to really fall for and who I live with to this day. Deep into the Volunteer State, near our destination, we needed to stop for gas. Confederate flag stickers adorned other cars in the station’s parking lot. As I prepared to pay for the gas and leave the girl in my car alone, she confessed that she was afraid. I saw the stickers and I became nervous, too. This was The South.
Nothing happened, and I felt a little silly afterward, but we both felt that a confrontation could be imminent. Unlike in our respective home states of Minnesota and New York, and in Chicago, where we went to college together, in our heads the South was the exclusive country where truly bad things happened because of racial prejudice.
As a young man who has spent my entire adult life in large northern cities, in the two weeks since George Zimmerman’s acquittal, I have been tempted to see the ruling and Trayvon Martin’s murder as the historical continuation of a uniquely Southern racism. In an excellent essay for The New Yorker, Jelani Cobb placed the saga in the ugly Floridian lineage of the Rosewood massacre and the Groveland case. That connection resonates. Cobb’s point is not that Florida is the only problem, but the state’s history provokes me to imagine that this all happened because Florida specifically is a horrible place. And certainly, it’s possible that the confrontation between an unarmed black teenager and an armed, non-black man might have ended differently in a different state.
But the tragedy has not made me feel as though the cities I have called home are unconnected to it, or that because of their histories, these cities are somehow exempt from soul-searching. On the contrary, the killing and the ruling have me considering how racism has touched the life I have lived in states traditionally thought of as Blue America.
My home town of Goshen, N.Y., is mostly white and Catholic, but my high school had a sizable minority population of black and Latino kids. (I am Jewish, so I am widely perceived as white. I phrase it this way because historically, that has not always been the case.) Among Goshen’s relatively diverse population, a guy who graduated a year ahead of me was universally known as a casual racist. I’ll call him Billy. Despite his prejudices, Billy was popular. He drank, had other popular friends, made fun of the right people and occasionally threw parties in his basement.
One night my junior year, Billy attended a basketball game drunk, like many students sometimes did. The visiting team had a mostly black roster. Two opposing players were brothers who were black and well over 6-feet-tall. All game, the brothers dunked spectacularly on our undersized, mostly white players. The game was a blowout. Afterward, Billy yelled at the opposing team as they boarded their bus in the parking lot behind our school. In these shouts, he used the word “nigger” and was held back by his friends. Somehow, the altercation did not become physical, and no guns were drawn. Another night, invited by a mutual friend, I was drinking in Billy’s basement, and I heard him refer to a schoolmate’s “big, black gorilla dick.”
Billy was not the only person in town with racial animus. I heard my own family members and family friends refer to black people as schwartzes, a Yiddish derogatory term for black people. I heard slurs and vulgar jokes about black people in gym class and on the bus. While working on my school district’s buildings-and-grounds crew one summer, a white co-worker said, “There’s black people and there’s niggers.” While I still would not describe my town as overtly hostile toward African Americans, clearly some white people who live in the area continue to have racist feelings. This is not rural Florida. This is 60 miles from New York City.
When I moved to the University of Chicago for college, race became a different beast. One of my sociology professors taught our class that the university itself had worked to push blacks out of Hyde Park and that the city government had built major highways to segregate blacks and whites. Another professor told us that the campus police was the second largest private security force in the world, after the Vatican’s, largely so it could “protect” white undergraduates from poor black people in surrounding neighborhoods. Chicago’s poverty line remains black and white. Its education gap is black and white. In the notoriously segregated city, race infuses political conversations.
In my fourth year of college, I started dating the black girl who drove with me to Tennessee. As an interracial couple, we have received stares and glares from both races. She urges me not to hold her hand when we travel to her grandmother’s house in Pullman, a neighborhood on the far South Side of Chicago. When we have visited Washington, D.C. and her hometown of Minneapolis, we have been yelled at in the street. “Stop stealing our women,” someone in Minneapolis once shouted at me. In the same city, my girlfriend’s three brothers—all of whom have gone to college or joined the military—have been stopped by police for simply walking on the sidewalk at night. In fairness, according to George Zimmerman’s lawyer, walking on the sidewalk means they were armed with a lethal weapon.
If we ever have children, and one is a son, we will be faced with the fears and frustrations that have been voiced eloquently by Cord Jefferson, Questlove and yes, Barack Obama. That kid will probably look black to the outside world, and he will be considered dangerous by a lot of people while he walks the sidewalks in Florida, Tennessee, New York, Minneapolis or Chicago. He might think twice about wearing a hoodie. This all scares me. It’s one reason why I wonder whether my girlfriend and I should have any children at all.
In an essay for The Atlantic about Paula Deen, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote that centuries of racist culture do not just disappear from a place. He’s right. He was talking about one specific place—southwest Georgia—but racism has survived beyond the South. America has come a long way from Rosewood, and there has been real progress to make us proud. But in every region of the country, there are instances, policies and attitudes to make us feel ashamed. Hopefully Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal makes some people and some representatives across America act on that shame. It’s been a long time coming.