Thursday, June 28, 2012

Are Blacks And Whites Treated Differently In This Country?

In the summer of '73 Pluckemin Presbyterian Church participated in a program in which inner city black youth were brought out to live with suburban families to get experiences you don't always enjoy in Newark or the Bronx. My parents signed on and "adopted" one such child for a week or two. I was away at college so my recollection of the details is sketchy. All my brothers can probably tell you his name, but for me he was the eight-year-old kid from Newark who stayed in my room, enjoyed our pool and became part of our family for a small space of time.

At the end of his stay my dad bought the boy a new bicycle. Evidently the kid liked riding our bikes and didn't have one of his own. I imagine that it must have been a thrill to bring that bike home with him.

To my parents' shock and surprise, two days later the police confiscated that bike from this boy on the assumption that he had stolen it. Little black kid in the ghetto + shiny new bike = suspicion of crime. That must have been the math the police used to draw this conclusion, as if everything is black and white. Unfortunately, they did not see the full picture because they did not have the facts.

I think of my own youth, riding my bike to the park and to the school and to the drug store for candy. And I wonder how many times the cops were thinking, "Better check this kid out. Might be a stolen bike." As we know, that never happened. I was a white boy with that innocent Leave it to Beaver look.

All this to say that Duluth's controversial Un-Fair Campaign this past winter caused quite the uproar here for a couple months. The Mayor was threatened. Editors received scathing hate mail. Protestors came in from out of town to make a statement. In short, it got ugly around here.

There are few issues more controversial than race in this country -- you probably know what they are – and one way to learn exactly how controversial a topic has become is to talk about it openly.

The Un-Fair Campaign began as a billboard campaign featuring white folk with messages on their faces, and the theme, “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.” Was the campaign aiming to say whites are racist? I don't think so. Were they saying other races are not racist? No, I don't believe so. I think their point was that our personal experiences lead us to take it for granted that everyone else's experience is like our own. Unfortunately, like the boy from Newark, normal for him has been a very different experience than what was normal for me.

Afterward I was able to discuss the campaign with a couple members of Swim Creative, the agency that helped develop the campaign pro bono. The campaign objective was to start a dialogue about white privilege and raise awareness of the sensitive issue. Though successful in getting attention, there were many in the community who took offense and failed to get the point.

I myself even became the object of a vicious email for having interviewed Naomi Sundog-Yaeger Bischoff on a totally unrelated topic (writing) the year before. Bischoff, as editor of one of our local papers, wrote a favorable review of the concept of the campaign, and some hate-filled person who was out to get her slathered me as well. (I did not post the comment because it was wholly unrelated to the topic in the interview and too vile for public reproduction.)

For what it's worth, I work with someone who likes to throw a smiley face at the end of any email that might be perceived as having something of an edge on it. So I decided to do the same here by sharing a Saturday Night Live skit with Eddie Murphy that addresses this same issue. Are blacks and whites treated differently in America? Eddie Murphy goes undercover to find out.

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