I am very rarely recognized in public, and when it happens, I’m usually mistaken for someone else. Sarah Palin tops the list; since 2008 I’ve been approached with “Has anyone ever told you how much you look like” so many times that now I just smile and say “You betcha. Everyone except Todd.”
So the other day, when a gentleman named Sonny stopped me in the aisle at Barnes & Noble and said “Hey, TV lady,” I smiled and waited for the usual “you need to cut your hair ‘cause I can’t pay attention to what you’re saying, and by the way, stop waving your hands so much.”
When you appear intermittently on a local political roundtable that people still call “Issues and Answers” even though it was re-baptized “Inside Story” over a decade ago, people feel a personal attachment. And I have to say, it’s very gratifying to be recognized in your hometown (unless your name is Bill Cosby and the person who recognized you is cooperating with the prosecutor.)
But Sonny wasn’t looking for an autograph or polite banter. He launched right into a conversation about race and wanted to know why we don’t talk more about it. Did I mention Sonny was black? (He told me “Don’t call me African-American, young lady. I was born in Charleston.”)
Having a discussion about race in the middle of the cookbook section is an interesting experience, especially when your 74-year-old interlocutor doesn’t believe in the “use your inside voice” principle.
As nicely dressed professionals and trendy hipsters eyed us cautiously, Sonny explained why I don’t get it because I’m white. He softened the supposed blow with a gap-toothed smile and said “nothing personal, I think you do your best on TV, 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 blacks 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 socioeconomic 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 in the Philadelphia suburbs. So while I don’t “get it,” I do “get that.” But still, Sonny’s commentaries about how I was safe in my own white world sounded so anachronistic, so Malcolm X in my ears. It’s exactly the way the whole Black Lives Matter rhetoric sounds to me, because I don’t think there is anything at all nefarious in saying that “all lives matter,” nor is it a way of deflecting attention from the problems that black Americans face in the 21st century.
I wanted to say this to Sonny, between his commentaries about red-lining and the fact that immigrants were taking the good jobs, like caddying and washing dishes, from him. I wanted to tell him 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 & 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.)
After I left the bookstore, I reflected on what had happened 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, and I know a lot of people vehemently disagree with it, 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 is 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.
Christine M. Flowers is a lawyer and columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News. Readers may send her email at firstname.lastname@example.org.