Now that debate moderators are asking presidential candidates how race works in their lives, I’ve been thinking about things I’ve witnessed here in northern Indiana. A couple of years ago I was visiting an elderly man from the neighborhood on one of those March days when the air is earthy and hopeful. We said our goodbyes out on his front step just as the nearby junior high school let out and kids started walking home. They were happy and relaxed, holding conversations of their own choosing now, not seruptitious ones eked out in whispers under the gaze of a pedagogical elder. These kids were free at last.
I didn’t know him really well, since he lived in the next block, but I remember our neighbor as a friendly person, always ready with a kind word for our kids as they grew up. But he was sort of hung up about race. Whenever he told a story, if it involved white people he never said they were white. But if there was a black person in the story, he always said the person was black, even if that wasn’t a meaningful part of the story. I guess he was raised in a place where the people just did that. He might say, I took the car to Wilson’s shop for new brakes. If Wilson was white, that’s what he’d say. But if the guy installing the new brakes had darker skin, our elderly neighbor had to mention race. To him, a person was either a person or a black person.On that afternoon he pointed out something about the junior high kids going past that really annoyed him, I could tell. Notice how all the black kids walk in the middle of the street, he said. These kids were raised so badly, he said scornfully, that they don’t even know to walk on the sidewalk. Or else they are just so disrespectful of what is proper in life that they won’t do even the simplest thing right. That was his second explanation. I had noticed kids walking in the street, too, but I had a different idea about it. My theory was: if you were a teenager passing the houses of easily frightened elderly white people, the further you stayed away from the front of their houses the better. Walking down the middle of the street might mean fewer scared folks peaking from behind their front curtains and reaching for their phone to call 911. That’s my guess. And I guess our neighbor was raised in an isolated social setting where simmering racial attitudes were never challenged and erased by a richer, more gratifying set of personal relationships with people of all sorts. I remember, too, a presidential candidate from the 1980s, Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who asked Americans whether we all too often accept that kind of social isolation and the attitudes it nurtures of uncertainty and even fear about another person. It’s a shame to think of our elderly neighbor simmering away in fearful, angry isolation.I drove across town last year on side streets and happened upon an encounter between a white female police officer and a young African-American man. They were standing near the street on the lawn of somebody’s house as I drove slowly by. The officer, alone, a few feet from her squad car, was plainly nervous and physically agitated as she asked the young man some questions. Behind him stood an arc of neighbors, no fewer than two dozen people, I’d say, who had come out of their houses to watch. They all looked much more like the young man than like the white police officer. They had a job to do, which was to stand as witnesses, and I saw in their quiet gravity that they knew that witnesses sometimes keep things from escalating. Seeing so many people standing there, even in the twenty seconds it took to drive past, I felt certain that they must do this over and over again in that neighborhood, in order to try to keep their young people out of jail or out of the morgue. I imagine that the more any of us are witnessed and known personally and understood by others, the better. Isn't that the best hope we have of someday seeing the word race lose its grim importance in American lives?