Black, White, Sad All Over

Screen shot 2013-07-15 at 11.28.19 AMBack a decade or so ago, I was standing along the concourse of the Cubs’ spring training stadium out in Mesa, Arizona, having a conversation with Howard Bryant, the great writer (and author of some amazing books). We were chatting about this or that when a white couple approached, holding tickets. They ignored me and turned directly to Howard. The man said, “Can you show us where our seats are?”

Howard, as sharp as they come, looked at the guy as if he’d spit in his coffee. “Do I look like an usher?” he said.

The man apologized and slunk off.

Howard Bryant is African-American. I am not. There was absolutely no other reason the man thought Howard was an usher while I wasn’t. None. All four of us standing there knew exactly what he was thinking, and Howard’s six-word response brought me great joy; joy I still feel sitting here, a decade later, in a New York coffee shop.

I thought of this exchange a couple of days ago, while sorting through my anger over the George Zimmerman verdict. I do not know, from a strict legal standpoint, whether the jury was wrong or right in their interpretation of the law. What I do know is that, across America, millions of blacks understand exactly what it feels like to be trailed by a clerk through a department store; understand what it feels like to stand on a curb for 25 minutes as empty taxis pass by; understand what it feels like to have people cross the street when you (especially a young you) come strolling from the opposite direction. This is not something some blacks experience, or most blacks experience. It’s something all blacks—like, 100 percent of American blacks over the age of, oh, 15—can tell you about in one form or another.

That’s why, when whites say, “This case wasn’t about race,” I feel like vomiting. It was all about race. George Zimmerman spotted a kid walking through his neighborhood. He grew suspicious. Why was he suspicious? Not because the kid was eating Skittles, and not (in and of itself) because the kid was wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He grew suspicious because he was tired of this shit; tired of young punks (common translation: black kids) committing crimes. So he called 911. And then, when the operator told him to hang back, he ignored the advice. He followed. Because that’s what you do when young punks walk through your neighborhood. He couldn’t leave well enough alone; couldn’t just return home and let the police handle things.

He just couldn’t.

I vividly recall being a kid and having my best friend walk up Emerald Lane to my house. He was one of the few black faces in town, and people stared. They stared and stared and stared. Because they were uncomfortable. Because they were put off. Because, well, what would a black kid be doing on these streets? There had to be a reason, right? Had to be?

I know many whites (whites who I know and like) who will read this and groan. Zimmerman was attacked. We have a black president. Times have changed. Blah, blah. It’s nonsense. Times have changed, but not as many people like to believe. I feel like, as a white guy, I grasp how many of my pigmentation think. They put on a good face; shake hands and smile and invite a guy in for a beer. But there’s genuine hesitation; genuine confusion.

What, they wonder, does this guy really want?

And what the hell is he doing here?