ESSAY #4 – 10.1.21, POSTED 1.29.21

Unsafe in the Living Room

Black people have been living in this country with the rest of us for 400 years. We all share this place we call home—the streets, the schools, the malls, and all the open spaces—but black people don’t experience the same feelings of freedom and safety that the larger white community takes for granted. Is there something to be seen here?

I remember back in the nineties, when O.J. Simpson was tried and found not guilty of the murder of his ex-wife and her friend. Two major equal but opposite reactions were recorded by the media and piped into living rooms across the nation. From what was shown, you could have been left with the impression that all blacks thought he was innocent and that justice was done, while all whites thought he was guilty and that you couldn’t trust a predominantly black jury to convict a black man of a crime against a white person. The truth, if it could be ascertained, was much more nuanced. All things must be taken in context to be understood.

Context is key

For example, a rational juror, using the legal standard of “guilty beyond a reasonable doubt,” based on all the evidence presented, could have found O.J. not guilty, and at the same time, could have believed him to be guilty of committing the crime. “Not guilty beyond a reasonable doubt” is not the same thing as “innocent,” in other words. You may not like the implications of that, or what it means about our judicial system, but it’s difficult to undermine it logically.

What you could not do is remove the trial from its context. It is next to impossible for human beings to take the happenings of life out of the context in which they happen. In the O.J. trial, the context included all sorts of things: the race of the victims and the defendant, fame, wealth, years of bias against black people in the American justice system, and the fact that the whole thing was televised. Whether or not you were actually in that courtroom would change your relationship to the information provided. Most people thought that watching it (or parts of it) on TV was the same as being in the courtroom. It was not.

Diversity: our shared inheritance

All information is relative and contextual—you can’t expect a white man to think like a black man, and you can’t expect a black woman to think like a white woman. That’s not to say that they can’t think alike—you just shouldn’t expect it, as their life experiences are going to be different. If you think all white people think alike or that all black people are the same, you are going to miss a lot about the people you run into along the way. Even regardless of race, you can’t expect any one person to see all things exactly like any other person—it’s just not going to happen.

Whether or not we appreciate the value of our diversity, the United States population is comprised of an immense variety of ethnicities, religions, educational backgrounds, and political beliefs. We are not just black and white—we are all shades of brown, and people born in all parts of the world live in our neighborhoods. Yet, we are Americans, all of us, and we share this geography and the expectation that we are equally entitled. Even making distinctions like “black” and “white” can sound divisive, but we have to talk about where we are before we can see our way to where we want to go.

All of the above is there to help you understand my experience when the media shared the various reactions to the O.J. verdict. I felt a wave of deep sadness as I realized: So many of our black brothers and sisters do not feel at home in their own living room.

The heart and soul of home

The thought I had was a metaphor. We think of our living room as that portion of the house where the family gathers, which is shared by all family members, as well as by invited guests. It is uniquely our own, and if there is a place where we should feel safe, it is in the living room of our own home. It is sacrosanct, the heart and soul of where we reside, and to violate that space is un-American. The living room, for the American family, is the safe nest of motherhood where babies are breastfed and toddlers toddle. Whatever our background, anything we hold dear—such as our love of family, our beliefs, and our values—is protected in that space.

The living room I was referring to in my metaphor are those places we live in together in our shared home, the United States of America. Main Street and the malls we shop in, our parks, the places we go to recreate, and our schools—all of which are essential to our well-being and economic health—are all part of the collective living room. The places that we work to earn enough to pay for our basic needs (and hopefully a little more) and the modes of transportation that we use to get there are part of that place we as Americans call home. I feel at home just about any place I go in America, but I am an Old White Guy, so I have had a lot of freedom of choice about where I go. If I find myself in the minority based on skin color, I am likely there because I had a choice in the matter.

Most of the time, black Americans are in the minority, whether they want to be or not. There is an old maxim in human development that I picked up along the way that goes something like, “We are more comfortable with those that we perceive to be like us.” So, assume the reverse to be true and you will notice that you are more uncomfortable with those you perceive to be different from you. It’s just human nature. And if you are part of an easily identified minority, you are likely to experience that discomfort more often.

Discomfort right where you live

The problem with human beings is that we generalize our experiences and then project them into new experiences. We can’t help it we just do. This means that there is a cumulative effect—a build-up of memories of previous experiences—on both sides of any interpersonal interaction. Even so, it is likely that the interaction is more uncomfortable for the person identified as the minority. For white folk in this country, being in the minority is rare, but if you have ever been anywhere around a new group of people that seemed different from you, and you didn’t feel treated warmly, then you have a vague notion of what I am talking about. Now multiply that discomfort by some unknown factor, and just feel that for a moment. Then, imagine repeating the experience every day for a lifetime.

Now, let’s step it up a notch. Unless you are one of those perfect drivers who the rest of us find annoying, you have probably seen blue and red flashing lights in your rearview mirror and felt one of your body’s sphincters tighten. Now imagine that you are aware of a history of unequal treatment by the police when dealing with people that look like you. Let’s be clear—this is not some anecdotal knowledge that you have picked up from the hair salon or the neighborhood pub these are well-known facts that you can find by reading newspapers, listening to the radio, or doing a little research online, not to mention by remembering your own and your loved ones’ previous experience with the police. This is supposed to be your own living room, but you are experiencing a little more than a sphincter tightening.

Or, say you get a ticket, and when you go to court, all the people in the front of the room, sitting on the bench, walking around with papers, talking to the judge, are different from you. What thoughts might cross your mind? This, too, is supposed to be your living room, where you would expect to be treated fairly, the same as everyone else in your shared home.

How about buying a house or a car, or just renting a hotel room for the night? I feel comfortable in all of those situations, but then, I like those types of interactions with people. Some salespeople will size you up and take whatever advantage they can, and will add a quarter of a percent or more to the interest rate, if they think they can get away with it, regardless of your skin color. If you were part of an identifiable minority, given the history of this country, wouldn’t you be concerned that they will take advantage of you if they can?

You see, I am not talking about interest rates or making deals, I am talking about not having to feel that the person you are dealing with will take advantage of you or treat you differently because you have different skin color. I am talking about having to deal with thoughts and feelings that arise in everyday life because of a history of actual events that have taken place, in what is supposed to be your home. If you are white in America, you probably will be aware of this occasionally. If you are black, you are probably aware of it every day, and that can make a person so weary. It is a matter of degrees and frequency.

Just see it

I am not blaming anyone or asking you to feel guilty about this common phenomenon of American life. I just want you to consider that there are people among us—our co-workers, our neighbors, perhaps even members of our own family—who don’t feel at home in their own living room. You don’t have to go out of your way to fix anything or anybody. You have no accountability for this, and you are not liable. You just need to be aware. I am talking about a group of our brothers and sisters—they are we and we are they—who have been with us for 400 years, through every national trauma, and yet who still don’t feel safe in their own living room, our shared home. If you want to do something, if you want to be responsible, to be able to respond, just see it. Just see it.

And then, give it some thought.