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On Dangerous Ground

June 19, 2007

A few nights ago, I went for a walk rather later than is wise, down the back ways and more dimly lit streets nearby. I do this quite often and there’s no doubt it’s foolish. New York may be safe for a big city, but not so safe that an insomniac on patrol long after dark has nothing to fear but a sudden onset of narcolepsy. Well into my prowl, I was coming to the end of a row of crooked warehouses when two young black men in basketball shorts and t-shirts emerged from an alleyway and crossed the street so that they were walking directly behind me. Pretending not to look back out of the corner of my eye, I crossed to the other side of the street and walked on.

I would have done the same thing if they had been white men in muscle shirts or Italians in leather jackets (anyone really except a crew of skinny hipster boys in striped sweaters and thick-rimmed retro spectacles). It was just the way they’d approached so suddenly that alarmed me. If there’d been only one of them I probably wouldn’t have crossed. At least these were the things I told myself as I walked away. I don’t consider myself a racist. I don’t hold any animus towards any racial or ethnic group or consider any to be inherently inferior. I find such notions offensive. These to me are the key tests of racism. And yet the fact remains that when two black men came up behind me in the night, I flinched from colorblindness and assumed they were likely to do me harm.

I’m confident that many of the proper, liberal types who would condemn me for this would do exactly as I did. So really all they’d be condemning me for is the admission. A conspiracy of silence governs such matters in which white liberals pretend they’re not scared or suspicious of blacks in certain scenarios and are awarded with a psychological badge that says “I am not a racist.” We avoid certain neighborhoods as “rough” though doubtless few of us have checked the latest crime statistics, our impressions remaining entirely anecdotal. We decry the disproportionate incarceration rates of young black males for non-violent drug offenses but we wouldn’t go anywhere near where most of them live or want them where we live. Perhaps it’s a necessary hypocrisy but I’m not so sure.

I can try and justify my own hypocrisy any number of ways. Jesse Jackson famously admitted that he was relieved to turn and discover that the footsteps he had heard coming up behind him belonged to a white man. Women encountering me on the street late at night would be wrong to see me as a potential rapist or mugger, but I cross to the far side of the street to assure them all the same. I’m not suggesting that black men extend me the same courtesy. That strikes me as monstrous somehow, and my indulgence of racial stereotype seems monstrous to me as well. I only note that I suspect it’s more common than many would care to admit, and that denial does little for any of us.

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