Huddled in the store’s back office, the employees tried to avoid being seen by the men who loomed outside. They were ready for this situation. A suspicious call earlier in the day inquiring about the store’s opening hours set the jewelry store workers on edge. Having alerted the police, they waited for help to arrive.
When police arrived on the scene they confronted the thugs and uncovered the plot. John Henson, a star forward for the Milwaukee Bucks, had arrived with three friends for what he saw as a major event in his life. Having just completed a $40m contract, Henson was planning to purchase a Rolex watch. He had been perplexed to find the store closed yet again, despite having called ahead to check its hours.
In America, you may get rich, but you’ll always be a…
There’s no denying that white America has come a long way over the past fifty years, shedding many of the most overt and violent elements of our deeply embedded race culture. Glossed over in that dramatic process are hardened relics of hostility and fear with origins so old that their rationale is lost to history. They remain cemented into our foundations, inspiring a bizarre white psychosis that still emerges to shape the life experiences of those subjected to it.
John Henson’s experience two weeks ago encapsulates what those achievements mean and what challenges still remain. If you want to know what American racism looks like in the 21st century, this may be the best place to start.
What makes this story so accessible is its banality. No guns, no screeching tires, no chase. There’s none of the lurid violence of a recorded beating. And it didn’t happen in the South. Henson’s experience at a jewelry store in suburban Milwaukee is important because it is so ordinary. This is how the machinery of white cultural supremacy operates on a routine basis.
A shop worker got a phone call from a black man who planned to come to the store. That shop worker reached the unremarkable racist conclusion that a black man (she could tell from the voice) would only visit her store for one reason. Repeat after me, “you know how those people are…”
She took the precaution of warning the police. Then when the frightening figures arrived, she did what her racial programming demanded – she hid and waited for law enforcement to restrain the deadly impulses of ‘those people.’
Here’s what she said to the 911 operator:
I don’t want them to see me out there. We’re pretending like we’re closed. They’re looking in the window. They’re just kind of pacing back and forth. I don’t feel comfortable letting them in. I just really don’t at all.
Sometimes this cycle ends with a dead black man. More often it leads to humiliation or threats. On the aggregate it feeds a kind of organized extortion as African-Americans are forced by a shadow hand out of common channels of commerce into markets that are little regulated, built for exploitation.
The same silent unacknowledged dynamics that might insert a police officer between a black millionaire and a Rolex shunt black borrowers into riskier, more exploitative lending environments, sort black-sounding names to the bottom of the resume stack, and block black entrepreneurs from access to lucrative capital markets. African-Americans can never assume that they are not inspiring fear or hostility (the same thing, really) in the people around them.
Most important of all in this scenario is the “innocence” of the store clerk. In the truest possible sense, that store clerk intended no one any harm. As she huddled, frightened, in the store office, she was possessed by a genuine fear of danger. Ask her and she would probably explain that she has “lots of black friends” and an absence of any racist bones anywhere in her wholesome frame. White fear is a blanket of absolution.
Her nasty racist assumptions could have gotten someone killed, as happened to John Crawford III and Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice and countless others. Yet no one is to blame. There are no racists in America. When these confrontations with racism turn deadly and are captured on camera, we are treated to a cascade of trolling concern over “black on black” crime. That term becomes our code, used to evoke the eternal absolution for racism, “you know how those people are.”
No matter how absurd, how ignorant, how malicious, White Fear is always a legitimate ground for violence against blacks. Young black men carry an implied burden of proof that they are not dangerous. Their window of proof sometimes opens only for a few seconds before closing forever.
On a more mundane level across endless small interactions like the Milwaukee incident, the same racist assumptions push their targets toward a galaxy of negative outcomes, big and small. Like a million invisible hands on a tug-of-war rope, the programming that clerk followed drags black Americans toward otherwise unexplainable outcomes.
And she is blameless. And we are blameless. This is how racism continues to impoverish whole communities, destroy lives, and kill in an America without any racists. This is why your aging parents passionately hate President Obama without being able to describe any justifications grounded on facts. Racism is the most universally potent cultural force in American life that allegedly doesn’t exist. As is doesn’t exist, it is beyond accountability.
Progress is real, and it is present in this story. Before 1950 black players were not allowed in pro-basketball. Henson not only plays, but he has become wealthy doing it. Without that progress this story would not have happened, at least not in this way.
For those who want to see a wealthier, freer America, Henson’s trip to the jewelry story is a capsule of our hopes and frustrations. What lies ahead for us may actually be more difficult than the long challenge of dismantling Jim Crow.
There may be no legislation or army that can perform this duty for us. The largest obstacles to progress in the black community are hidden deep in the souls of the white folks who surround and outnumber them. They are relics left behind that distort our vision and pervert our intentions. As the British still wrestle with ghosts of class we remain blinded by race.
Only self-reflection can correct our distorted vision, but that is painful. Time may bring us some relief, as each new generation seems to have incrementally less racist programming than the last. However, the time that white Americans demand to work out their issues is little comfort for those who must stand outside a locked door waiting.