Jacobs shows the vexing and clumsy racial situations we all inevitably encounter, large and small, and makes sense of them with practicality and directness.
- Arcade Publishing
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- 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.62(d)
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Typhoid Marvin: Blacks, Whites,
and Public Transit
Rush hour on board a bus or a train. A blur of bodies. each one moving faster than thought. The flood of oncoming passengers begins to solidify. Skins jam ever closer with each stop. I am sitting next to a window, my eyes half-closed in the lurching zone between departure and arrival. Dressed conservatively in a tweed jacket and tastefully bold tie, I am an unremarkable man on an unremembered train, as unnoticed as any other commuter. Except for one thing: amid the growing crush, the seat beside me remains empty. At stop after stop, as people come on board, glance around, and seat themselves, a succession of seemingly random individual decisions coalesces into a glaring pattern of unoccupied spaces next to black males -- including me. Soon the seats beside us are the only ones left. Other passengers remain standing, leaving these seemingly quarantined seats to those desperate souls who board once the car is choked past capacity.
Though I have seen many white people plunk themselves down without even a glance, I have also seen, over time, a broad pattern of avoidance of black men far too pronounced for measly coincidence. Do you doubt me? Ask any black man. Better yet, begin watching.
This skirt-the-contagion dance is not a purely white set of moves. I've seen everyone do it: Asians, Hispanics, Jews, other blacks. It can run both ways. On a packed bus in a poor African-American neighborhood, a black teenager makes a grand show of avoiding the seat next to a white woman with red hair. He stops, he glares, he sits elsewhere. The woman is a friend of mine. She is regularly shunned, sneered at, and called names by black strangers when she rides buses. Some black passengers, forced to sit beside her, turn their backs on her entirely, sitting with their feet in the aisle and their bodies hunched away from her in an exaggerated pantomime of revulsion.
And so there you are in your vinyl seat: a white person treated like snow-covered carrion by perfect strangers who have dark skin. And there I am: a personable black man avoided like a jaguar by people who know nothing about me. And the question echoes between us: What in the world are we doing?
In the case of passengers avoiding black males, here is what they are doing: letting a grim fairy tale wreak havoc with what they have come to see and believe. Where does the tale come from? From the nightly news, for a start. From eerily identical television news broadcasts, each a grainy video account of poor and uneducated black men netted, like angry Discovery Channel wildebeests, by the police -- another in a numbing procession of street crimes. From photographs in the local news section of sullen-looking black youths in handcuffs. From politicians who rail against a scripted cast of enemies to middle-class security: predatory criminals, savage drug addicts, hedonistic single parents who bear free-roaming young. From a dark flood of villains portrayed as disproportionately urban and black. From the lack of coverage hinting at the larger, less action-packed world in which black children do homework in tenement bedrooms and black parents marry and work long hours -- and in which some white suburbanites commit felonies within stucco walls.
What Americans get from this single-themed show is a message of fear reinforced at twenty-four-hour intervals: Black inner-city people are out of control, and their kids are killers. No wonder, then, that this fear and avoidance of blacks, this tendency to give all African Americans a wide berth, has come to be second nature for so many whites.
Youth brings a nonracial component to the equation. We expect recklessness, a blind lack of restraint, from the young. And with males committing the vast majority of crimes on earth, young males, of all of our potential seatmates on buses and trains, seem most likely to be trouble.
But the young black male is special. He is our darling of perceived deviance, our poster child of ill will and bad blood. For him, we reserve special apprehension, even in the face of the facts. Consider the statistics: the vast majority of both violent and nonviolent crimes in the United States are committed by white men. While it is true that black men commit crimes at a rate greater than their percentage of the population (and we could debate the social reasons), the fact remains that on any given day any American is far more likely to suffer at the hands of a white male criminal than a black criminal. Yet somehow we manage to resist a blanket fear of white males. The double standard is stark and ugly. Many Americans, regardless of race, harbor a fear of African-American males that is wildly, even hysterically, out of proportion with reality.
And sometimes the fear can boil down to an empty seat. I know how it feels to be targeted. I have had so many seats remain empty next to me on jampacked buses and trains that at a certain point, like many in my position, I have gone numb to the experience. I have learned to override the impulse to be maddened by the daily insult because I simply can no longer stand to care. I can no longer endure seething through innumerable bus and train rides, striving in vain to make angry eye contact with people for whom avoiding black men has become routine. I can no longer stand the prickles of paranoia, the perception of even coincidental gestures as tiny racial slights, the feeling that my ego is as accessible as public transportation.
When we hear young black urban men speak reverently of "respect," what they mean is that they are starving for the kind of casual, ordinary recognition that whites take for granted. They want what is freely given to most white strangers encountered in public: the benefits of being presumed intelligent unless proven stupid, of being presumed civilized unless shown to be otherwise, of being presumed decent unless demonstrably repellent. When this most basic of courtesies is consistently denied, the result, among legions of young black men, is an outright obsession with respect that seizes the only power available -- aggression -- and uses it as a weapon of self-esteem. Can't you see it on the street? The cocky walk, the expansive flinging of arms as if to claim the world, the (corporate-abetted) worship of competitive physical prowess, the idea of a gun, or of the threat of one, as hair-trigger personal veto power. "I compel, therefore I am. Now try to squelch my existence, punk." All in pursuit of mere acknowledgment. Such an obsession with everyday acceptance can just as easily grip a black commuter sheathed in a suit and tie -- except that in his case the violence coils inward. Whether by bus or by train, it makes for a mean, and sometimes brutally short, earthly journey.
As I've suggested with the example of my friend, racial rejection happens to white people on buses and trains, too. And it hurts. But there is a difference. Most white people do not shoulder their way through a lifetime of being singled out for hostile caricature. And in the absence of societywide bashing of the white self-image, they can more easily recover from being snubbed on a bus. Black Americans are not subject to a media barrage of images of white citizens jacking up helpless yo boys (the dominant media messages, in fact, depict whiteness as a colorless, pleasantly inert state of normalcy). The "home turf" nastiness some black passengers may show a white commuter can best be understood as a sort of revenge. From the standpoint of many blacks, whites have done all but beg to be disliked. To those African Americans inclined to seek easy enemies, embracing a raft of malignant white stereotypes (they are dirty, they are ice-hearted, they have poor home training) can deliver the sweet rush of vindication. Black people who have fallen victim to this influence will seize the opportunity to make ruthlessly public their personal distaste for white people.
Such treatment may come as a shock to some whites. For many black Americans, however, the need for defense against micro-assaults has long since been ingrained into our consciousness. Years of being treated as lepers in close quarters have pushed many blacks, particularly young black males, into razorwire zones of psychic self-protection -- especially in the crowded confines of a bus or train.
And so there you are: a black person or a white person avoided on public transportation. What are you supposed to do?
If you are black and angry, your first move ought to be to take a long step back from all of this ugliness. Look at the situation from a distance. Be aware that you are witnessing, in today's cultic fear of the color of your skin, a form of public insanity. When twenty-third-century historians write of the period in which we now live -- in much the same way that historians now view, say, the ordeals of free blacks during the era of legalized slavery in America -- they will judge such behavior with sadness and some measure of disbelief.
Take the clinical view for a moment. The whites who avoid sitting next to you know squat about you as a person, and worse, they don't know that they know squat. Like many nonblack Americans who have little experience with black people, they believe the media distortions about who you are alleged to be. And if they have had even one bad personal experience with an African American, they are prone to embrace the resulting image for life. Psychiatrists tag substituting exaggerated fears for reality as classically delusional. Should you be offended if a procession of diagnosed paranoid schizophrenics refuses to sit beside you on a bus? People who entertain sensational preconceptions of you fall into an analogous category of lunacy, if only for a few moments at a time. So treat them as lunatics. Sit back, read your newspaper, or look out of the window, and marvel at a world that regularly offers you extra seating room.
Still not satisfied? Want to fight back? You might consider some preemptive moves of your own. For example, place your jacket or satchel on the empty seat next to you, forcing anyone who wants the seat to request it. Sit on the aisle side, effectively blocking the empty window seat until someone asks whether they can slide in. Or make it a habit to sit only beside other people. Such gyrations of self-protection, though, might seem weak and hollow. To what extent, after all, are you really willing to allow other people's behavior to govern your own?
If, on the other hand, you are a black person who singles out white passengers for isolation or abuse, you can claim the dubious distinction of having assisted in your own dehumanization. Your collaboration in fanning racial ill will among perfect strangers helps to lower black political consciousness to its shallowest possible level -- that is, to the same level of blind ethnic belligerence as white supremacism. With your continued assistance, this state of racial barbarism will continue indefinitely.
To many whites, the mere fact of their seatmate preferences on buses and trains may come as jarring news. How are they supposed to notice patterns so universal as to seem invisible? Freedom from such awareness, after all, comes with being white. American Caucasians can spend their entire lives dancing away from young black males and never even realize it. If you are white, chances are fairly good that you have already done so. Nobody would call you a bad person for doing something of which you are unaware. But if you don't want to know, that's another story. So now you've been told. When you take public transit, pay attention. What you see may surprise you.
When and if you find yourself disinclined to sit beside a young black male on a bus or a train, ask yourself this: if he were of a different race (with the identical manner, clothing, expression, etc.) would you sit down beside him without hesitating? If your answer is no, then avoid him guilt-free. But if the answer is yes, you have a problem. There are plenty of perfectly good reasons for not wanting to sit beside someone: ripe body odor; a rancorous, twisted smile; an open bottle; the demeanor of a just-opened vein. But a person's age, race, and gender simply do not cut it as warning signs. Every time your unthinking prejudice makes me or anyone else an involuntary representative of scariness, you hurt the feelings -- and raise the blood pressure -- of a human being who deserves better. You become, in effect, an unwitting apostle for some of the more boorish beliefs burdening our planet. This is antisocial behavior at its worst. Change it.
If you're white and find yourself persona non grata on a largely black bus or train route, with passengers emitting potently noxious signals for your benefit, you should try, like young black males caught in similar social ambushes, to treat this as you would any other bizarre compulsion. You can defend yourself, if you choose, by guarding the empty seat beside you. But such petty relief is strictly stopgap. Are you really willing to play cat and mouse on buses and trains forever? Would it not be better to understand what looms behind the rage: a siege mentality to which many African Americans have succumbed, one in which they judge all whites as broadly and as harshly as they themselves feel judged? As a white person, you can escape abuse by getting off the bus. For black Americans, it is not so easy.
Meet the Author
Bruce A. Jacobs is an author and speaker. He has appeared at scores of colleges, organizations, companies, places of worship, and community gatherings from New York to Arizona to California, as well as on C-SPAN, NPR, Pacifica, and radio and television shows nationwide. He is a featured participant in “Race and Reconciliation in America,” a series of national conversations about race convened at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. He lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
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