Tuesday, December 2, 2014

After all the discussion about race...

...in America following the recent events in Ferguson, I suppose there's very little I could add to the conversation. But I do have a couple of thoughts. (Surprised?) First a little story:

A week or so ago, I had to go down to City Hall and get a replacement parking sticker for my new car. (Old ones are not transferable.) You can imagine my expectation: This could be brutal.

I left my house around three o'clock and, after a short ride on the Blue Line, arrived downtown just a few minutes later. After stumbling around a little, like a drunk, and asking one or two people for help, I found myself in the right line in the right office with only one person (!) in front of me.

When I stepped up to the window, a kindly Indian-American gentleman asked me how he could help. I explained what I needed and wondered how much it would cost. "Only ten dollars for seniors," he responded. Not this again, I thought.

"What's a senior?" I asked him.

"Sixty-five or older," he replied.

"Take a look at my driver's license."

"Oh. Then it will be twenty-five dollars."

He had a little trouble with his computer so we both slid down to another window. An African-American lady there greeted me cheerfully, "Hello, young man."

"That's more like it!" I said. They both laughed. Pointing to the Indian-American man, I said, "This guy called me a senior!"

"But I was only trying to save you money!" he protested.

"Good answer," I said. We all got another chuckle and I left shortly after with my new sticker. (The whole process was painless. I was home and walking Stewart within the hour.)

But the point of this story, in case you didn't notice, is that I couldn't help "seeing" the first man as an Indian-American and the second lady as an African-American. And, like it or not, that's who I am. While I would like to think of myself as color-blind, I know I'm not. Growing up, I went to Catholic schools in overwhelmingly white suburbs and rarely met anyone unlike me. And it's not just race, but ethnicity I'm conscious of. In fact, whenever I talk to someone I can't help thinking of them as black, white, Italian, Jewish or whatever. Even when I'm dealing with another Irish Catholic (of which both my parents were) I'm aware of their mindset, assumptions, prejudices, etc. (I think, because of this, I have the least patience with members of my own "tribe." Sometimes I just want to shake them and say, "Stop thinking that way!" Or, "Bagpipes? Again? Get over it!")

But that, I think, is the difference between conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, and those who sympathize with Officer Wilson or Michael Brown. I know a lot of people who fit into the first category -- conservative, Republican or supporters of the police, in this case -- and I'm sure you do too. And the vast majority of them sincerely believe they are not racist. In fact, if you ask them, they'll probably tell you how color-blind they really are. And they mean it.

But the truth is, none of us is color-blind, no matter how much we'd like to think otherwise. I, for one, would like to believe I am but know I'm not. And anyone who says he isn't racist, or at least conscious of race -- "honest!" -- needs to be taken with a grain of salt. This is why, I believe, Republicans love black conservatives, like Clarence Thomas, Dr. Ben Carson or Sen. Tim Scott: they make them feel less racist. See, they seem to be saying, we don't hate blacks, just the ones on welfare or in prison or demonstrating in Ferguson or whatever. (Which is about 99 percent, they figure.)

Now, I hope I don't sound too sanctimonious here. I just think of myself as a guy who isn't color-blind but would like to be. That's all.

My prescription for better race relations? Well, you may not be too surprised to find out that it involves high school sports. Really. If you're from some lily-white suburb, like I was, and only came into contact with some of the "good ones," go to a football or basketball game at a predominantly black high school and sit in the stands. You know what you'll find? A bunch of people watching a game. Some are obnoxious ("The refs are terrible!"), some are talking and joking around, and some of the moms are wearing their kid's jersey. In other words -- and as I was telling this to someone over dinner last week, my wife kept saying to me, "Careful..." -- they're just like us. Or you. And, I wonder, if more white people came into contact with more black people -- and not just the professionals they encounter in their everyday lives -- then more Republicans might stop grousing so much about that black guy in the White House President Obama. Because, really, down deep we're all the same -- just a bunch of people trying to get by: working, raising a family and making a marriage work. It's really not a whole lot more complicated than that.