Do You Know the Racist Code?
“You may be as ignorant as I was until I had honest conversations with Bob. I would encourage you do to what I did, have a conversation and ask about experiences. Be proactive because, if you are not part of the solution, you are the problem.”—Tim Bayer
Won Over By Reality
By Bob Jackson & Tim Bayer
“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.”―The Dalai Lama
FAIRPORT New York—(Weekly Hubris)—15 July 2020—Being close friends with Bob had blinded me from seeing something obvious.
“How is Boston?” I asked him.
“Pretty good, except for being followed down the aisle in the pharmacy,” said Bob.
I sensed irritation in his reply, which confused me. “Were you unable to find something? Why were you followed?” I asked.
Recognizing that our years of friendship were contributing to my ignorance, Bob looked directly at me and, with perfect, humorous sarcasm and timing, emphasized his one-liner response: “Because . . . I’m Black, Tim.”
Bob and I met in the 3rd grade and became close friends in high school. This enabled us to have frank conversations which exposed my ignorance about the often subtle, but sometimes overt, racism that Bob experienced all his life. Through these conversations over the years, I learned that, because of my complexion, I have never been on the receiving end of The Racist Code.
“For example,” said Bob. “In high school, a girl you liked told your friend that you were cute. What did you do?
“I asked her out on a date,” I said. “What did you do?”
“Nothing,” Bob said. “I didn’t ask her out because she was white and I wasn’t’ sure how she or her parents would react.”
That’s one small example of how the code impacts people of color.
The Racist Code consists of both behavior that is expected of a person of color and comments that are directed at members of a race without specifically naming that race: it’s all codified. Bob enumerated examples of The Racist Code that have been communicated to him over the years.
“Keep in mind,” said Bob, “the people were oblivious to the fact that these were racist comments and, ironically, these comments were intended as compliment!”
“You’re a good one.”
“You’re not like the rest of them.”
“You speak so well.”
“And then,” Bob continued, “in addition to the back-handed compliments, there are the open-handed insults.”
“That’s a bad neighborhood.” (A Black neighborhood.)
“WE given THEM so much. I don’t understand why THEY’RE so angry.”
Some background: Bob and I grew up in the suburbs of the same town, Webster, in Western New York, went to school in the same school district and graduated from the same high school. However, his and my education and knowledge of current events and history reflected some differences. For instance, see how you fare on these three questions (I only got 1 correct):
- When learning to drive a car, what is DWB?
- What is a Tuskegee Airman?
- What is Black Wall Street?
DWB is Driving While Black. When teaching their children to drive, Black parents often have to explain the care they must take and how they should interact with police during a traffic stop. Saying or doing the wrong thing can go horribly wrong quickly and, unfortunately, sometimes with deadly results. Recent history has shown no improvement in this fact on the ground.
A Tuskegee Airman is a pilot who flew in an all-Black fighter squadron in World War Two. The Tuskegee Airmen painted the tails of their aircraft red and were renowned for their excellent piloting skills. The “Red Tails’” reputation was so good that a number of white bomber air crews specifically requested they be protected by the Red Tails on bombing missions. The stories of white men praising Black men for their piloting skills and thanking those Black men for protecting their bombers and saving their lives were not told in enough places in the United States. It wasn’t until The Civil Rights Act of 1964 that all state and local laws requiring segregation were removed. However, compliance with the new law moved at a snail’s pace, and it took years and numerous cases in lower courts to enforce it.
Black Wall Street was the site of a massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921, when mobs of white residents attacked Black residents and businesses in the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” (Also, take a look at the Rosewood massacre in Florida, in 1923.)
After I did poorly on the three questions, the conversation returned to The Racist Code.
“Here is another snippet from the code,” said Bob. “It’s this: ‘I don’t see color.’ It is meant to assure a Black listener, ‘I am not a racist.’ However, If you say, ‘I don’t see color,’ then you don’t see ME. I am Black and you need to see me as Black and recognize that it doesn’t render me incapable of being any more or less of a human being than any white person. Unfortunately, it also gives some white people reason to treat me differently solely on the basis of my skin color.”
Then Bob asked me, “In the first minute of a conversation, has anyone that you’ve just met announced, ‘I’m not a racist’?”
“That’s never happened to me,” I replied.
Bob continued, “Suppose someone you’ve just met says, ‘I’m not an axe murderer.’”
“Good point,” I said. “I might think there is a non-zero chance that person is an axe murderer.”
After George Floyd was murdered while in the custody of the Minneapolis police, I sent an email to Bob. Bob wrote back:
“I feel like I’m in the science fiction novel by Harlan Ellison entitled I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream. The continued murder of Black people by those who swore an oath to protect and serve the citizens of any given city in the United States of America, is infuriating. Fortunately, the victims of this continued, slow massacre are only, I repeat, only looking for equality, and in most instances, to be left alone and to live and love in peace. I’ve experienced the most benign to the most blatant acts of racism and have been non-violently targeted by the police numerous times, even in my hometown. My brother was stopped numerous times for walking in the ‘wrong’ neighborhood in Ithaca when he was a PhD student at Cornell.
“Why do I have to explain to my two sons that there is a proper way to ‘behave’ if ever approached by a police officer, regardless of whether you’ve done something or not. How do I make my 14-year-old understand that not every police officer has his best interest at heart or that their racist fear of him drives them to overreact? If he needs their assistance, will it end up being more detrimental to him than the situation he called them for would have been? Look up the story of Kenneth Chamberlain Sr., a Marine veteran, who was tasered and shot to death in his own home in NY after accidentally triggering a life alert alarm and not allowing the cops into his apartment as was his legal right. The entire event was recorded by the Life Alert responder; no cops were initially charged.
“Black folks have had to navigate these and many more questions that no person should have to even think about.
“So now we’ve come to point where people are just plain tired of it and have taken to the streets in protest. Many are in the best traditions of MLK and, unfortunately, some, not so much. I’ve had lifelong friends post the most ridiculous posts about Black-on-Black crime or Black folks killing white folks and ultra-conservative Black folks who say we ourselves (Black people) are the problem and not the ‘bad’ cops, as if that makes up for the police officers who are murderers.
“As angry as I’ve been, and I can’t even begin to state that here, I have hope. I’m extraordinarily optimistic about what’s going on at the grass roots level around the world with people of all races, economic levels, etc.
“Hopefully, instead of anger, I’ll be able to scream with joy as things continue to change”
In the 40 years since we graduated from high school, Bob and I have had lots of conversations that have allowed me to become aware of the privilege afforded by my skin color.
To be clear, privilege doesn’t mean that you don’t experience difficult times or hardships. What it means is that you don’t have the additional burdens faced by a Black person and, because of that, you may be unaware of the subtle racism, micro-aggressions or overt racism faced by someone who doesn’t have that privilege.
Perhaps that privilege is like a glass wall. You are unaware of it because you have never seen it and it never stopped you because you were on the privileged side of the glass.
You may be as ignorant as I was until I had honest conversations with Bob. I would encourage you do to what I have done, have a conversation and ask about experiences. Be proactive because, if you are not part of the solution, you are the problem.
Listen. Learn something. Research has proven that racism is learned. As a society, we need to recognize The Racist Code and eliminate it.
About Bob Jackson: Robert Jackson, P.E., born in Pittsburgh, PA, grew up in Webster, New York, attended Cornell University, and graduated with a BS in Civil and Environmental Engineering. Since graduation, he has worked in various facets of environmental engineering, first with the US EPA and then with two of the largest environmental consulting firms in the country. In 2005, Jackson moved to a three-man firm and has been there ever since, managing the remediation of hazardous sites among other things. A would-be soccer coach to his sons, he is currently in the process of re-learning his own hobbies after wrangling his two sons for the past 20 years.
Image Credits: 1989 photo and 2009 photo used in, “lifelong conversation”, montage provided by Eren Hart. Bob Jackson yearbook photo and current headshot provided by Bob Jackson.
Thank you, Bob, and thank you, Tim, for being willing to let us see part of this process all of us must face sooner rather than later. Friendship is such an astounding thing, miraculous in this time of pandemic on top of everything else.
Thank you, Will. To continue the metaphor; Maybe the post will be shared with someone who will, for the first time, see their reflection from the privileged side of the glass, decide to modify the image they see, and become part of the solution.