It was 2012, and I was doing some volunteer work as a Big Sister. My Little Sister was a truly adorable African-American ten year old. She was somewhat shy, very polite, and really appreciative of anyplace I took her. One afternoon, I took her to a shopping mall so we could find a birthday gift for her mom. She asked me if she could first look at the DVDs (I took her to a lot of movies, and she was eager to see if any of them were out on DVD yet), and I said that would be fine. I told her I needed to go over to the pharmacy department to get something for my allergies, and I said I'd meet her where the DVDs were. But as soon as she walked away from me, I noticed something interesting: a store security person began to follow her. I found this puzzling, since the kid was not doing anything out-of-the-ordinary. There were other kids (all of whom were white) looking at various things in the store, but the store detective was focused on my Little Sister. I quickly headed in her direction and asked the security guy if there was a problem; I also told him she was with me, which for some reason, seemed to reassure him. I, on the other hand, found the entire experience really troubling. It certainly seemed like the store security person had made the assumption that a black kid looking at DVDs must be a potential shoplifter, whereas white kids doing the exact same thing did not cause any suspicion.
Lest you think I am reading too much into one incident, I can assure you these sorts of things happen far too often, and not just to adorable ten year olds. They happen to black people of all ages, and from all walks of life-- members of the clergy, lawyers, business executives, and athletes. And they've been happening for years. One event I still remember occurred in 1990, when Boston Celtics first-round draft choice Dee Brown was house-hunting with his fiancée in a wealthy (and mostly white) suburb. The couple had found what they thought was the perfect home, and were about to get into their rental car when something went terribly wrong: they were surrounded by seven police officers, five of whom were armed. Brown and his girlfriend were told to get on the ground. They had no idea why. As it turned out, the manager of a nearby bank had recently been robbed, and he called the police, saying he thought he saw the robber getting into a car. What he saw, of course, was one of the few black faces in that town. There was NO resemblance between the bank robber and Dee Brown, nor was Mr. Brown armed or threatening. Yet he was confronted by officers with guns, and told to lie face down on the sidewalk like a criminal while police checked his ID. They ultimately concluded it was a case of mistaken identity (all black people look alike?), but needless to say, this was not the welcome to greater Boston that Dee Brown had expected.
I know there are some people who will insist that the police and mall security have every right to be suspicious when they see black people, especially black young men. Recently, I've also seen an increase in Facebook and Twitter memes about how blacks are inherently violent, often quoting exaggerated statistics about black criminality, and expressing the need for a return to law and order (for whatever it's worth, these memes are usually sent to me by Donald Trump supporters). I've also heard various pundits on conservative media outlets asserting that the reason black young men get into trouble is they refuse to "comply" when police give them an order. Unfortunately, compliance is not the only problem. In all too many cases, it appears that prejudiced assumptions play a role. For example, there are numerous studies showing that blacks and whites are treated very differently by law enforcement, and the same is true when it comes to the criminal justice system-- if a black defendant and a white defendant are convicted of the same crime, the black defendant tends to receive a substantially longer sentence (sometimes as much as 20% longer). More about some of these studies can be found online at
And it's not just black defendants who endure unequal treatment-- how about black three year olds? Over the past several years, a number of news articles have noted that black children in preschool are being suspended for a wide range of offenses, from wetting their pants to refusing to put on their shoes-- misbehavior that white children are not being suspended for. Studies have also found that black boys are far more likely to be expelled from preschool for behaviors that, while annoying, are certainly not unusual in young children... and once again, behaviors that do not cause white children to be expelled. http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/12/why-are-so-many-preschoolers-getting-suspended/418932/ Agreed, kids who don't behave can be frustrating, and teachers have every right to apply appropriate punishment. But I find it troubling that some preschools are giving up on black kids at the age of three, whereas white kids are given far more chances to learn to behave.
As a media historian, I can tell you that much of this is not new. There have been stereotypes about minorities for centuries, often articulated by supposedly educated white "authorities," including professors, doctors, and preachers. These stereotypes have been both useful and necessary to the majority culture, because if a certain group (in this case, African-Americans) is labeled as inherently dishonest, if their kids can't behave properly by age three, if they refuse to comply with authority in the right way, well then, who came blame society for discriminating against them? The concept of "white privilege" is often misunderstood because it seems to say that white people have it easy-- they're privileged. But that's not what it means. It means that there are negative assumptions that most white people never encounter... and all too many black people face on a regular basis. Few people assume the average white guy is a criminal when they see him walking down the street. A number of my white friends have had broken tail-lights on their car but none of them have been pulled over and subsequently shot by police. Few people assume that the average white person in a store is a thief. And even fewer people assume that a three year old white kid is hopeless and needs to be expelled from preschool.
Please don't misunderstand me: I am not saying that all white people are racists, nor am I denying that some black people do in fact commit violent crimes (as do some white people). But my study of history tells me that certain racist beliefs are woven into the fabric of our culture. Many of us who are white don't want to believe that; but rather than denying the existence of racist stereotypes and myths, it might be useful to begin telling the truth about them. No, we do not live in a post-racial society. No, racism is not a thing of the past. And while we have absolutely made progress, there is much more we can and should be doing to make sure that everyone, no matter their race, receives an equal opportunity. If you haven't seen it already, I strongly recommend watching an excellent 2013 documentary called "White Like Me: Race, Racism and White Privilege in America." You may not agree with it, but I promise it will make you think: https://vimeo.com/ondemand/whitelikeme/70803132. And during these difficult times, when accusatory rhetoric (from people on both sides of the racial divide) is far too prevalent, I hope there are still enough of us who want to move beyond blame and continue these difficult conversations. Communication is the most powerful thing we have. But we need to use it wisely, and use it well, so that the end result will be greater understanding, rather than just the same old myths and the same old memes.