How do you want to be treated?
“Negroes,” James Baldwin wrote in the vocabulary of his times, "want to be treated like men: a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the bible find this statement utterly impenetrable” (“Fifth Avenue, Uptown,” Esquire, July 1960).
A 21st-century writer might say we all want to be treated like human beings, rather than like men, and probably wouldn't say, negroes. Other than that, it would be anybody’s guess whether Mr. Baldwin wrote those sentences to be read in July 1960 or last July.
I don’t think it’s news that the majority election of Barack Obama (twice) failed erase prejudice from that portion of the minority who voted against him because he’s black. No thoughtful person I know seriously expected it would—no more than ending legal slavery in 1865 eradicated the attitudes that assumed and promoted racial inequality in America. Our problem operates at a deeper level than elections and the laws—the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the National Voting Rights Act of 1965, the Fair Housing Act of 1968, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994—that define and regulate racially motivated misbehavior and criminal conduct. Our racial problem reaches to our hearts.
I was raised in the segregated southern United States, where through grade school I had limited contact with adults of African descent and no contact whatever with their children. When I was in junior high, the “all-black” schools in my town were closed and our student bodies consolidated—and just like that we were side by side in one place every school day (and into the evening for kids like me playing school sports).
I think the adults--the white ones anyway--anticipated social and educational collapse following desegregation. I know of no such breakdowns in my location. The new normal felt pretty ordinary, pretty quickly to me. I did lose my presumptive starting guard position on the basketball team to a black kid named Elijah Gilliam, who had been in one of the schools that was closed. But, honestly, anyone could see he was a more talented player than me. Starting Eli was a no-brainer.
In those early years, weekends and summers became odd fugue states—spans of time during which black and white schoolmates did not see each other because there were few integrated neighborhoods in our town—I knew of none—and because the city closed all the municipal swimming pools. Swimming, like public education, had been administered on the separate but equal doctrine that still held sway more than a decade after the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson ruling of 1896. This—the swimming pool closures—was, I think, another situation in which the adults anticipated the worst from what was sometimes referred to as “mixing the races.” So, everyone (except those whose families could afford membership in private clubs) sweated out some very hot summers in obedience to the perception that no good could come from black kids and white kids splashing around in the same water.
There was in those years a rapid increase in the number of private, all-white schools—many of them located in churches—confirming, I suppose, the determination by some self-described Christians to keep a safe distance at home, even as their denominations poured money and human resources into evangelizing Africa.
Despite all that, once the children began to learn and play together 30 hours a week for nine months a year, some things changed rapidly. Then, the first indoor shopping mall opened in our town, attracting regional and national chains more interested in moving product than preserving racial purity. Thus, commerce further diminished the distance between people who had until then, even on shopping days, lived almost entirely separate lives. A decade after the Civil Rights Act, I felt welcome in soul food restaurants in parts of town my family avoided when I was a boy.
That said, there’s a problem with this picture if you think it shows a complete recasting of relationships in my town. To say I felt comfortable eating soul food in restaurants that catered mostly to black patrons says nothing about the restaurants, swimming pools, “white” churches and private schools where my black classmates and their families did not feel—and were not in fact—welcome.
It’s clear that racial integration—or at least desegregation—was faster and smoother for me than for many others in my community. This is another way of saying that desegregation does not equal engagement, inclusion, and life shared.
I was a year or so behind Tommy Curtis, the finest high school basketball player I ever saw. Tommy built on his considerable natural talent with an impressive work ethic. Cruising about in my '57 Dodge Lancer, I occasionally saw Tommy around town. He wasn’t driving; he was training—dribbling a basketball while he ran at a pace I could never match over distances I was sure were meant to be driven. One night, leaving the school gym after the building crew turned off the lights, I heard Tom shooting free throws in the dark. Bounce, bounce, bounce, swish. There wasn’t much I cared about enough to work that hard.
Tom was the first black kid to play basketball at our school. I asked what that was like in the beginning. School desegregation had been hard on Tom. In addition to name-calling and general shunning, rednecks sometimes spat on him from above in the open stairwells of our three-story building. In his first game, Tom controlled the opening tipoff and waited for his teammates to set up to run the offense. While Tommy was still way outside, an opposing player came out to meet him and hissed, “Go on, shoot the ball, nigger.” Welcome to the Deep South in the mid-60s. I cringed when he told me. “What did you do?” I asked.
“I took the shot,” he said, and scored his first high school points from a spot beyond what’s now the three-point line.
I don't want to make it sound like I hung out with Tommy. By the time we connected, he'd been in college a while (studying and playing basketball at UCLA for the legendary John Wooden) and I was still in high school. The connection was so brief he may not even remember me. I remember him for being a remarkable student athlete, and because when I asked a few honest questions, he was kind enough to trust me with answers that still resonate down the years. Much later, I learned that Tommy’s parents were both professionals, and his family was likely better off than my own. They probably could have afforded one of those private schools or swim clubs had there been one they cared for.
In the four-and-a-half decades since high school, every American black man I’ve spoken with in any depth about his life has disclosed personal stories about being treated as if he were less than human—episodes of racial bullying from the earliest years of life through adulthood. None of those men ever volunteered these stories; I’ve had to ask, and ask in a way that made these friends and acquaintances believe I could be trusted.
It may be that these men’s hesitation about revealing such episodes explains to some degree why when I say every black man I’ve asked has disclosed a personal story of racial bullying—not against his father or cousin or neighbor, but him—many light-skinned American men don’t believe me. Apparently, most white men in America haven’t heard stories of racial bullying from black friends. Maybe it hasn’t occurred to them to ask. Their friends certainly aren’t going to just volunteer stories of personal humiliation—or even attempted humiliation. (Light-skinned women, by the way, don’t generally disbelieve me; perhaps because it seems like it might parallel the gender bullying so many of them have experienced.)
Even if it’s awkward—maybe because it’s awkward—regardless of our own racial identity, I think we have to be open to hearing our friends’ stories with great sensitivity and compassion and respect. Otherwise we’ll never learn how close we live to people who’ve been, and may today be, exposed to racial bullies. I don’t think we can afford the cost of leaving people we care about isolated with painful experiences that should never have happened and should never happen again. Of course we can’t demand that people reveal those stories— every person’s story belongs to him or her and choosing to tell it is not an obligation but a gift. What each of us can (and I believe must) do is become the sort of person to whom someone might risk telling a painful story.
For me, all this begins with asking a question I've inferred from something the early followers of Jesus remembered him saying: it begins with asking, "How do I want to be treated?” Do I want to be disrespected, devalued, or threatened? And if I were being mistreated would I want people to look the other way?
“Negroes want to be treated like men:" James Baldwin wrote, "a perfectly straightforward statement, containing only seven words. People who have mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the bible find this statement utterly impenetrable.” For the record, Mr. Baldwin was poking fun at people who ought to know better; people whose walk does not match their talk.
You and I may not have, “mastered Kant, Hegel, Shakespeare, Marx, Freud, and the bible”—I certainly have not—but it doesn’t take a genius answer the question, “How do I want to be treated?”
And what sort of person—what sort of self-described Christian—does it take to obey Jesus when he says, "Do to others as you would have them do to you”?