I read about an African-American man who, when asked why he dwelled on race so much, responded: “How can I not? It seems to intersect all facets of my life.”
That was years ago, but the comment stayed with me because the subject of racial bias lurks in the corners of my mind, informed by my own life experiences. I’m not special — I bet this is the case for many people of color, for whom bigotry can rear its ugly head any time, in ways you might not imagine or notice if you’re white.
America is talking a lot about race these days because it keeps intersecting facets of our lives: Those arrests of two men at a Philadelphia Starbucks, apparently for sitting while black. The Austin bomber who initially terrorized minority neighborhoods, killing two black men and seriously injuring a Hispanic woman. The Austin Police Department’s early investigation, which fanned stereotypes and cast suspicion on the first African-American victim. The redrawn Texas voting districts that dilute the votes of minorities. The San Antonio charter school assignment that asked students to list positive aspects of slavery. These are just instances I can pull off the top of my head. Like pulling cards from a fat deck.
And there was President Trump’s outrageous tweet about “breeding” — a word usually used for animals — in sanctuary cities. Over the many years I covered immigration for this newspaper, I regularly received unsigned letters and emails railing against illegal immigration and containing one or both of these thoughts: “illegal immigrants are having babies” and “illegal immigrants are like cockroaches.”
All of this is not new. Bigotry has been intersecting our lives for centuries, long after slavery and Jim Crow, long after the struggles of civil rights and Chicano rights, long after King and Chavez. Long after the courts ended segregation and systematic discrimination.
Racism once hid behind white robes and pointed hoods. In Charlottesville last year, the torch-bearing white supremacists didn’t bother to hide their faces.
President Trump famously tried to tell us that “there were very fine people on both sides,” apparently unwilling to acknowledge that this, make no mistake, was racist hate on full display. See it? For crying out loud, how can you not?!
In the 1950s in Texas and the Jim Crow South, there were no blurry lines. The signs at restaurants, movie theaters and public swimming pools said it all: “No Dogs. No Negros. No Mexicans.” The indignities of racial bias past sometimes were suffered in relative privacy. Today, with a camera in every pocket, the masses can see racially fueled diatribes and attacks in public view and posted on social media, where they go viral. Like those racists in Charlottesville, the perpetrators typically are defiant and proud.
In the early 1970s, I was a young boy traveling with my aunt and cousins to work on farms in the Midwest. It was a grueling drive because we didn’t have money for motels. Planning for meals was complicated because we didn’t know if the restaurants served Mexican-Americans.
My aunt described bad experiences in previous years in diners in one state or another. The long, painful walks to the front door when it became obvious that the waitress glaring at them wasn’t going to take their order.
Ah, but we’re post-racial now, you say. Fast forward. The other day I took my teenage daughter shopping at a pricey athletic wear store. A 20-something white store worker standing a few feet away ignored us for 10 minutes, before quickly rushing to help a white couple that appeared behind us. I don’t think my daughter noticed, but I did. I’ve been conditioned.
In Austin, I’ve stood in a long line to pay for my items with a credit card and been asked for ID. The white customers in front of me were not asked the same. When I was young, it was not uncommon for store personnel to keep an eye on me as I shopped. Shopping, eating, sitting, just being — these can be unpleasant experiences if you’re brown or black.
Racial bias can blindside you. I answered the newsroom phone one late night to hear a caller’s complaint about some news of the day. His rant took a crazy turn into a thinly veiled racist tirade against Hispanics. When I tried to extricate myself, he thanked me for listening and asked my name. I answered.
“Castillo?” he said with obvious surprise.
I presumed I had not sounded Hispanic enough for him, whatever that means.
“Oh, listen, I didn’t really mean those things I said about Hispanics …”
These sorts of things aren’t supposed to happen in Austin — not if you believe in its reputation as a quality place to live, one that’s progressive and racially tolerant. But not everyone welcomes difference, and people of color don’t always experience that same quality of life others boast about.
Starbucks will close its stores for a day next month for racial-bias training. I’ve heard sarcasm that the entire country should shut down, too.
We are a nation of cynics; some say Starbucks’ response is a stunt intended to make up for a disastrous public relations nightmare. Perhaps, but let’s give them credit for at least acknowledging racial bias exists. It can’t be ignored.