I am very rarely recognized in public, but the other day a gentleman named Sonny stopped me in the aisle at Barnes and Noble and said “Hey TV lady.” Sonny wasn’t looking for an autograph, or polite banter. He launched right into a conversation about race.
Did I mention Sonny was black?
Having a discussion about race in the middle of the Cookbook section at Barnes and Noble is an interesting experience. As nicely-dressed professionals and trendy hipsters eyed us cautiously, Sonny explained why I don’t get it because I’m white.
“Nothing personal, I think you do your best on TV,” Sonny said. “But you ain’t gonna know what it’s like to walk out this door and be afraid you gonna die.”
I guess he was referring to the high mortality rate of African Americans in our shared city, and from that perspective he’s right, I don’t get “it.” But I’d wager that neither would a black woman who practiced law alongside of me at immigration court, because the high mortality rate is a function of things other than race, including gender, age and socio-economic background, otherwise known as class.
That, of course, would be hotly disputed by many people of color. They would say that no matter how rich you are, or how educated, or how integrated into a suburban society, you will still feel the sting of racism. This was put on display recently in the cover story in a local magazine, which detailed the troubling incidence of racism outside of Philadelphia.
So while I don’t “get it,” I do “get that.”
I wanted to tell Sonny that when my dad went south in 1967, it was precisely because he “got it,” and wanted to make a change in the poisonous system of Jim Crow. I wanted to tell him that the white people he was maligning, to the dismay of the cashiers and the volunteer gift wrappers at Barnes and Noble, actually walked arm in arm with the great black civil rights icons. I wanted to tell him about the fact that the Southern Poverty Law Center was founded by a white man, Morris Dees.
I also wanted to tell him that my mother was horrified when, living in Baltimore, she was faced with a set of water fountains that said “White” and “Colored,” and that she complained to the restaurant owner about it.
I wanted to tell him all of these things, but he was tired, 74, and not really in the mood to hear a lecture from a relatively young white woman who he saw on TV and assumed to be rich (so wrong, Sonny, so wrong).
Earlier that day, Antonin Scalia had triggered a social media controversy when from the bench during oral argument on an affirmative action case, he suggested that it might be better for black students if they went to second-tier schools that would better accommodate their skills (as shown by their grades) as opposed to being shoe-horned by judicial fiat into top tier schools where they would be more likely to fail. He was referring to the mismatch theory, which holds that students who are pushed by affirmative action into academic environments for which they are unprepared have a difficult time succeeding.
Regardless of how you feel about that theory, it was way too easy to make Scalia into a racist because he suggested that affirmative action might be harmful. He probably should have focused more on class than race, because money is a much better indicator than race when it comes to academic potential.
But again, it’s a matter of perspective. Scalia and Sonny led different lives, and speak a different language. It doesn’t mean that either are racist. Even when Sonny said that the “white men will always win because they have the power,” that doesn’t mean he had hate in his heart. Neither did Scalia, for asking a statistic-based question.
That’s what I’d tell Sonny, if I had the chance. If I see him again, in the cookbook section, I will.
Flowers is an attorney and a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org