Protesters gather outside of a Starbucks in Philadelphia on April 15 after two black men were arrested when employees called police to say the men were trespassing. The arrest prompted accusations of racism on social media.
When my father went down to Mississippi in 1967, he had no illusions about what he’d find. The civil rights movement was well under way but far removed from the dream enunciated by a young minister who’d soon be murdered and consigned to legend. Daddy anticipated obvious anger, arrogance, hatred and suspicion, and he found them festering in the people of Hattiesburg. So when he wrote in his journal about the children who called him a “white n—–” as he tried to register “Negro” voters, it was a simple confirmation of what northern folk expected from their southern siblings.
Fifty years later, and the expectations have changed, but the results haven’t. True, there are no little children standing on the street corners of Philadelphia screaming racial epithets with easy confidence. We know what not to say out loud, where people can hear and judge the content of our characters.
But there is still a divide that festers in Philadelphia, not the one in deepest Mississippi where three civil rights workers were murdered and buried in a ditch, but the one that houses the single most sacred square mile of historical real estate: Independence Mall. On the other end of the city from that hallowed ground is a place called Rittenhouse, and there is a coffeehouse where two black men were treated to a lesson in “waiting while black.”
I’ve rehashed this before, in another column, and I’ve had people tell me I’m wrong to presume that two men were denied the use of a bathroom because they were minorities. But I do think that when it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s safe to say that a duck just walked into the Starbucks on Rittenhouse Square.
Daddy didn’t have to deal in nuance. A little child spitting out horrible words at a white man walking beside a black man is obvious hatred. The sly dance we now engage in when we try and assess racial undertones is much more difficult. So you have to look at context.
I’ve been examining the varied contexts of other situations that have occurred since the Starbucks incident, and I can only conclude that we are still one step – wide and gaping, but still a step away – from that little girl calling my father and his companion the most vile and inhuman of names.
Earlier this month at Yale, a graduate student fell asleep in a common area after having worked on her thesis. I used to do that at Bryn Mawr, curling up into a comfortable ball on one of the dorm sofas after caffeine and good intentions failed me. I, however, was never awakened by police officers demanding to see identification, demanding to see if I belonged on that sofa and in that building. The Yale student wasn’t so lucky, and it’s not a stretch to believe it’s because she was black. You can argue that her skin color was irrelevant, but you would be wasting breath on a losing cause. The woman who called the police on the Yale student had a history of insulting people of color on campus, a campus that has its own tortured identity crisis.
The great irony is that Yale was once the site of student protests because a professor had urged the sensitive scholars to stop being offended snowflakes and not be “triggered” by Halloween costumes and cultural appropriation.
I laughed at the ridiculous posturing of the pathetically immature students at that time, but I’m not laughing now. Calling the police because a black woman is sleeping on a college couch is racism, pure and simple. It is hard to imagine a white woman in a sweatshirt and thick glasses being roused from a deep sleep and asked for her papers. In fact, no one has produced any evidence that it’s happened before.
And then we have the black family harassed by a white woman in Oakland because they were using the wrong type of barbecue grill in a park that allowed people to barbecue.
And we have the nosy neighbor who saw a black man inspecting a home in which he had an economic interest and called the police because … just because.
And lest you think it’s only black people who have to worry, what about the man in New York, a Haverford School grad no less, who went ballistic on two employees who were speaking Spanish in a restaurant?
You can try and brush off these events, and protest that we’re all too sensitive.
But it’s these subtle assaults on human dignity are the most dangerous, because of the plausible deniability of their toxic roots: Bigotry.
We don’t need a little girl screaming curses at a white Yankee lawyer, to understand that truth.
Christine Flowers is an attorney and Delaware County resident. Her column appears every Sunday. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.