Thursday, December 18, 2014

Tales Worth Retelling

In an interview with People magazine, the nation’s First Couple related their personal experiences with racism. 

“There’s no black male my age, who’s a professional, who hasn’t come out of a restaurant and is waiting for their car and somebody didn’t hand them their car keys,” President Barack Obama told People. The magazine reported he said “it had happened to him.”

A car key handoff of a different kind happened to one of my magazine’s salesmen, Mike B., in Detroit more than 30 years ago. Arriving late for an appointment in downtown Detroit, Mike hastily handed his rental car keys to a garage attendant. Only the person wasn’t a garage attendant, a fact Mike discovered when he returned to the garage. 

It took the police less than an hour to locate the now stripped-to-the-bones stolen rental car. Aside from his dignity, that’s not all Mike lost that day. Seems Mike had a quirky habit of stashing his wallet under his car seat, no doubt a bonanza the car thief and his cohorts had not anticipated finding. 

The People article also included Michelle Obama’s story of shopping in Target while first lady. “The only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. Because she didn’t see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her.”

Mrs. Obama sees that as an example of racism, an illustration of a (presumably white) woman assuming a black woman is an employee and asking her for help. Perhaps. But I’m more inclined to believe the customer looked to her as a taller,  bigger woman who could more easily reach the product she wanted to buy. While shopping in a supermarket or discount store I am often asked by women to reach merchandise on higher shelves. And since I’m generally dressed neatly, they many times presume I’m a store manager. I’m also wondering if Michelle was wearing a red polo short that day, the standard apparel worn by Target associates. 

On the other hand, I agree with Mrs. Obama’s other examples of racism encountered by her husband. “He was wearing a tuxedo at a black-tie dinner, and somebody asked him to get coffee,” she recounted, while noting that before becoming president “Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of troubles catching cabs.” 

The status of race relations in America is at its lowest level in 17 years, according to a study released last week by CBS News and The New York Times. In 2009, 66% of those polled thought race relations were “good.” This year that percentage has dropped to 45%, a 31.8% decline. As could be expected in light of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown killings, as well as other incidents around the country where whites—police officers and civilians—shot unarmed Afro-Americans, the black community is more inclined to believe its members have been targeted for less than equal treatment.

Hard to blame them, but I wonder if the Barack Obama factor isn’t at play here. Instead of signaling a new era of racial acceptance, his election and re-election as president have fostered latent bias and overt racism. There just are too many people—white people—who cannot accept that the leader of the Free World is black. 

They see members of Congress publicly dis the president. They watch Fox News commentators throughout the day disrespect him. Both groups are not attacking his policies, for in truth he has done what his Republican predecessors have (including a surprise opening of a new era of relations with a devoutly Communist country). They are attacking his person. It’s thus a small leap of conscience for the individual bigot to gratify and carry out his or her own prejudices, even if it results in bodily harm to an Afro-American. 

Mind you, I am not exonerating blacks from contributing to the lower level of good race relations. I’d like to see more bootstrapping in their community. I want them to project more family values, better maintain neighborhoods, embrace education not as a stepping stone to a professional athletic career but for its ability to contribute to a more meaningful and rewarding life. They have allowed a culture of drugs and violence to dominate too many of their surroundings. 

Yes, Afro-Americans have historical, and let’s not forget physical, hurdles not experienced by other minorities. But the success of Obama and corporate leaders such as Richard Parsons and Kenneth Chenault should provide inspiration beyond recording studios, ball fields and arenas.