I once worked for a man who was a former professional football player, a tough-minded executive who was taller and broader and just all-around more imposing a presence than anyone else I knew.
He was also African-American, and he taught me a lot about how differently whites and blacks tend to view the world. Though he was very successful – he was, in fact, my boss’ boss – he never forgot the hard lessons racism had taught him.
It was hard for him to forget, because the lessons just kept on being taught, mainly through unthinking indignities perpetrated by white people oblivious to the prejudices ingrained in them.
Driving to a conference one day, we made a stop at a tollway oasis and he offered to buy me some ice cream. I told him what I wanted and waited as he walked up to the counter, dressed in a suit, tie and elegant topcoat, to place the order.
As he stood there waiting, the white teenager behind the counter actually leaned around him to ask a white man in a windbreaker and jeans who was standing behind him for his order. My boss pointed out that he was first, and the girl blushed and quickly apologized.
I didn’t see you, she said.
Did you hear that? he asked me on the way back to our car. I had, and it brought me to a new, more visceral understanding of something he had told me many times. Not only is racism still around, it’s strong enough to override all other aspects of a black person’s identity. You can be a success in every way the world measures success, but you’re still, in some people’s eyes, a person unworthy of attention or trust, even perhaps a little dangerous.
It is one thing to understand intellectually that these things happen, but quite another to experience them. Which is why I would suspect that, while everyone was appalled at LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s racist rant, the average black person was perhaps less surprised by it than the average white person.
Racism these days is as ignorant as ever, but it has a new patina of slyness. It’s easy for those who aren’t normally its targets to become complacent, to believe that blacks who bring up racism are being oversensitive, living in the past, using white attitudes as an excuse for their own shortcomings. It’s easy to dismiss the Sterlings who occasionally get caught as bizarre dinosaurs from another age.
But that’s not quite so easy to do if the ugly face of racism has revealed itself to you again and again before retreating behind a mask of respectability.
If you are white, like me, and tempted toward congratulatory complacency, as I sometimes am, ask your black friends whether they also believe that racism is a ghost of the past.