Monday, March 9, 2009
We expect recklessness, a blind lack of restraint, from the young. And with males committing the vast majority of crimes on earth, young males, of all of our potential seat-mates on buses and trains, seem most likely to be trouble.
But the young black male is special. He is our darling of personal deviance, our poster child of ill will and bad blood. For him, we reserve particular apprehension, even in the face of moderating facts. To be sure, black men commit crimes at a rate greater than their proportion of the population (we could debate the social reasons), and in many urban environments this adds a racial element to routine caution on the street.
But the fact remains that the vast majority of crimes in the United States, both violent and non-violent, are committed by white men. Which means that on any given day any American is far more likely to suffer at the hands of a white male criminal than a black criminal. Yet somehow we manage to resist a blanket fear of white males. The double standard is stark and ugly. Many Americans, regardless of race, harbor a fear of African-American males that is wildly, even hysterically, out of proportion with reality.
And sometimes the fear can boil down to an empty seat. I know how it feels to be targeted. I have had so many seats remain empty next to me on jam-packed buses and trains that at a certain point, like many in my position, I have gone numb to the experience. I have learned to override the impulse to be maddened by the daily insult because I simply can no longer stand to care. I can no longer endure seething through innumerable bus and train rides, striving in vain to make angry eye contact with people for whom avoiding black men has become routine. I can no longer stand the prickles of paranoia, the perception of even coincidental gestures as tiny racial slights, the feeling that my ego is as accessible as public transportation.
When we hear young black urban men speak reverently of “respect,” what they mean is that they are starving for the kind of casual, ordinary recognition that whites take for granted. They want what is freely given to most white strangers encountered in public: the benefits of being presumed intelligent, civilized unless shown to be otherwise, presumed decent unless demonstrably repellent. When this most basic of courtesies is consistently denied, the result, among legions of young black men, is an outright obsession with respect that seizes the only power available—aggression—and uses it as a weapon of self-esteem.
Can’t you see it on the street? The cocky walk, the expansive flinging of arms as if to claim the world, the (corporate-abetted) worship of competitive physical prowess, the idea of a gun, or the threat of one, as hair-trigger personal veto power. “I compel, therefore I am. Now try to squelch my existence, bitch.” All in pursuit of mere acknowledgment. Such an obsession with everyday acceptance can just as easily grip a black commuter sheathed in a suit and tie—except that, in his case, the violence coils inward. Whether by bus or by train, it makes for a mean, and sometimes brutally short, earthly journey.
[Racial] rejection happens to white people on buses and trains, too. And it hurts. But there is a difference. Most white people do not shoulder their way through a lifetime of being singled out for hostile caricature. And in the absence of any society-wide bashing of the white self-image, they can more easily recover from being snubbed on a bus. Black Americans are not subjected to a media barrage of images of white citizens jacking up helpless yo boys (the dominant media messages, in fact, depict whiteness as a colorless, inert state of normalcy). The “home turf” nastiness some black passengers may show a white commuter can best be understood as a sort of revenge.
From the standpoint of many blacks, whites have done all but beg to be disliked. To those African Americans inclined to seek easy enemies, embracing a raft of malignant white stereotypes (they are dirty, they are ice-hearted, they have poor home training) can deliver the sweet rush of vindication. Black people who have fallen victim to this influence will seize the opportunity to make ruthlessly public their personal distaste for white people.
Such treatment may come as a shock to some whites. For many black Americans, however, the need for defense against micro-assaults has long since been ingrained into our consciousness. Years of being treated as lepers in close quarters have pushed many blacks, particularly young black males, into razor-wire zones of psychic self-protection. . . .
Bruce A. Jacobs is an author and speaker who blogs at "Alias Bruce." The above excerpt is from his recently revised book, Race Manners for the 21st Century. Jacobs has spoken at many universities, churches, and community gatherings, and appeared on C-SPAN, NPR, Pacifica, and other radio and television shows. He is a Harvard graduate, a widely-published poet, a drummer and "almost-competent saxophonist, and an irretrievably fanatical fisherman."