Just how racist is America?
From my standpoint, not very.
I realize this is just one person’s view, but I’m not just basing it on what I feel. Like the rest of you, I watch the evening news and surf the Internet to find out what CNN, Fox News and the other television cables and top newspapers are saying. Because of my profession – I am a journalist and magazine writer – I also travel a lot on city buses, commercial jets, Greyhound and Amtrak. This places me in proximity to people from many different backgrounds and cultures. I am not shy when it comes to initiating conversations with strangers, and there are few things I enjoy more than talking about something controversial.
One of the most controversial subjects recently was the George Zimmerman shooting of an unarmed black man. While riding a city bus the other afternoon in Springfield,MO., which represents America’s heartland, I brought up the shooting with several of the passengers. The bus was empty except for the five of us, so we had ample opportunity to hear each other’s views. Our small group included a white couple, a black woman in her 60s and a Hispanic girl in her late teens.
What do you think caused the shooting, I ventured? Was it racism?
“No,” said the Hispanic girl. “I think it might have been caused by fear and mis-communication.”
The black woman agreed.
“You go into any neighborhood at night, things can happen,” she said. “That’s why I don’t go out at night any more. I stay home and keep my doors locked.”
They were all concerned that Zimmerman was carrying a gun. The white couple agreed that he was too young to be carrying a firearm in such a setting.
“Maybe he felt like he was a police officer and didn’t have to answer to nobody,” said the black woman. “That happens when you have the power like a gun. If he didn’t have the gun, it would have been him against the young black man he shot. And fists don’t kill.”
I grew up in Western Pennsylvania about 20 miles from Pittsburgh. My late father was a coal miner and steel worker and we lived in a small town that was mostly inhabited by middle-class white families. There was an all-black community called Scott Haven about three miles from where we lived in Sutersville. For many years, the two communities practised segregation, with black people going to the black bars and restaurants, and the whites going to their favorite all-white establishments. We even had two baseball teams, one black and the other white, that played against each other from time to time. The games always brought people from miles around to fill the wooden stands along the river.
But over the past 20 years, that has changed. Today my home town has several black families, and some white families have moved into the areas near Scott Haven, which sits in an attractive rural setting flanked by the Youghiogheny River and a forest that is alive with wild turkeys, rabbits and deer.
It has been my experience that people are more accepting of other cultures today than they have ever been in my lifetime. They make eye contact, smile and listen to each other’s positions. They find themselves more in agreement than disagreement, and when the conversation ends, it’s usually with a nod, a smile and maybe even a handshake.
My father was in his 80s when he passed away from complications linked to black lung, which he had picked up in the mines. One of our neighbors, Clarence Coleman, had won $1,000 a week for life in the Pennsylvania Lottery, and a newspaper editor asked me to interview him.
Clarence had bought a new house on a hill about a mile from our home. Dad surprised me by asking to go along on the interview. I had gone to high school with Clarence and he greeted me at the door with a warm handshake. He shook my dad’s hand and we went into his house and stayed there for about an hour.
As we drove back to our house, Dad said, “I’ve never been in a black person’s house before. It was really neat and clean – just like your mother keeps our place.” He was amazed at his discovery. Out of that initial meeting, he and Clarence became close friends and often visited one another until my father’s death.
Will there be occasional issues that explode into violence, caused by the economy, alcohol or dangerous drugs? Of course there will be. All of us have a dark side that can burst out of control when severely provoked. But we are making progress, and it can only get better as long as people are willing to go the extra mile with one another.
(Submitted to The Good Times by Geno Laurenzi Jr., an international journalist, ghostwriter and book author who has written for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, People Magazine and dozens of other magazines and newspapers. You can share your opinions with him by sending an email to email@example.com).