The White Devil In The Elm City
I saw the White Devil the other day, and it terrified and saddened me. He was reflected in the look of wariness and suspicion in a young man’s eye. The kid couldn’t have been more than fourteen. He had the lean and supple look of someone not yet bent by time. He was carrying a sign with a symbol on it and a phrase I did not recognize.
"What’s that mean?," I asked the young man.
He recoiled just a touch, a discernable flinch that was powerful, a sign I was crossing a line, and was, perhaps not welcome where I was seeking to go.
The young man told me it signified self-improvement of African-American males. His colleagues looked warily at me as I took in the information. It was as if a drawbridge was drawn up. I thanked the kids and walked away.
The confrontation, however brief, stuck with me all afternoon. Another broad stripe of the color line separating and dividing people. The young man and I were both present at a rally asking that justice be done in the Trayvon Martin case. We were fellow travelers of a sort, both hoping for a better world.
I was asked to speak at the event later that day. There were hundreds of folks gathered in front of City Hall in New Haven. I mentioned how unnerving it was even among folks sharing the same general aims to see the color line busy at work, dividing white and black. I thought my remarks harmless, a mere reminder of the ever-present reality of race.
As I was leaving, a fellow about my age stopped me. He was wearing a sweatshirt with the same symbol on the young man’s sign emblazoned upon it. He told me my remarks were hurtful, that the young men felt disrespected by what I had said.
For a moment, a sense of despair and then resignation took root. "Why bother to try?," I thought, when everything is contested terrain. Why not just retreat to my white cave? I see what I see; if I cannot say what I see, then why speak at all? Race can nourish a cancer, transforming the other into something far less than themselves.
I asked the man to apologize to the kids for me. I meant no harm. I was trying to illustrate in a real and present way just how powerful race is as a means of separating and dividing people.
"You seem like a person of good will," the man said.
I told him not to be so sure.
Race confounds, confuses and terrifies me. It always has. I know I have the privilege of skin in this world. My whiteness is a passport to places other people can’t go without much greater effort than I need to spend.
When I was a kid myself and about the same supple age as the young man with a sign, my hometown of Detroit erupted in violence. The old white men in my neighborhood sat on their porches with shotguns, hoping for a shot at the "niggers" they blamed for torching the city. I guess the men were going to protect me. I was a member of their tribe. But I was afraid of those men, too. I was a child wanting the approval of the elders, but not these elders; not men spewing hate and looking to kill. We could smell the smoke of burning buildings. I was also afraid of the black other. There seemed nowhere to go.
The year after the riots, I was a crossing guard, wearing a bright orange belt. My post was across the street from a housing project. I used to worry about getting killed by a black man with rage left to spare after the riots. I quit the post after a few weeks.
But I believed then, as I do now, that the riots and race and the fire that time were all of a piece. Years later, in New York as a student, friends and I would sit on our college campus overlooking Harlem. We were waiting for the next riot. I did not attend law school out of college. I knew a thing or two about poverty, and I knew all about racial hatred. I was sure the country would erupt in flames again and soon. Why study the law and a legal system that was rotten to the core? I studied political philosophy instead, and kidded myself into thinking I was preparing for a better world. The conflagration never came. Instead, we stumble along, white, black and brown, somehow avoiding the issues while pretending that we are color blind. I am a lawyer now, vainly hoping for the day when the color of justice is not cast in racial hues.
What stunned me yesterday in the look on the young man’s face is the realization that I am the White Devil. At least I look like one when I approach. I represent the other who takes without giving in return, the hypocrite who preaches freedom while benefitting from the privation of others. My lily-white goodwill, if I am capable of such, is a luxury that does not entitle me to the trust of others. Do I think I should be accepted merely because I arrived at protest rally? I am on the other side of a line, and from the perspective of the other, I am therefore suspect. Only a white man could forget that.
My wife bought me a recent biography of Malcolm X for the holidays. I am reading it now. I read it with something like envy. I admire Malcolm and know that to him I would forever be suspect. I envy him the purity of his rage, and know that I can never fully rage against myself. But quitting the fight is not an option, even if I am forced to tread lightly.
I see all this today after a restless night’s sleep. It saddens, wearies, and terrifies. But it also reminds me that I have my own stereotypes. Were I to see Trayvon Martin skedaddling by my rural home in a hoodie, I would wonder why he was there. I would give him the same look the young man gave me yesterday. I am marked by America’s original sin.
But I am not a devil. Neither was Trayvon. Neither was the kid with a sign. We are different yet aspire to be as one. Cynics say unity cannot be accomplished. I am betting against them because the consequences are a world that is violent, sad and terrifying. I was reminded of all that and more yesterday, while I was sauntering about as a self-righteous White Devil.