Many Rivers to Cross: Giving Up on Bridging the Racial Divide

I've been asked why I haven't written about Black History Month or the Michael Dunn trial. Especially since some of my posts about Trayvon Martin and other racial issues resulted in both an appearance on Democracy Now and also being called a racist myself on right-wing websites and radio talk shows that cater to white people who feel threatened by not just black teens, but "the way things are going" in America.

That last part, by the way, is the answer to the question I was asked. Many white people are very angry about and afraid of "the way things are going" in America -- racially and otherwise. And I totally understand this.

We are all scared sideways about "the way things are going" in this country. We have lost houses, run up our credit cards to and past their limits, moved back in with parents or borrowed from family members. We work longer hours for less money, we sometimes have to decide whether to eat lunch or fill the gas tank while playing Russian Roulette with our health, letting prescriptions we need wait just a few more weeks...

Many of us don't even eat the way we once did -- beef is no longer "what's for dinner" in many households. Husbands stare at the porterhouse and rib eyes in the meat section of a grocery store as if they were choosing a diamond ring for their intended--and realizing they're going to have to put off that purchase a little longer.

So, if you're white and wondering why you are the first generation not doing better than the generation that preceded you, you definitely don't want to hear about the "white privilege" you're accused of having. Watching Beyoncé and Jay Z and and Kanye flaunting their power and wealth must make it pretty hard to listen to people "of color" insisting that they still face discrimination in the workplace and society-at-large.

Especially if the only "colored" people you actually see are on TV. Or at work. At a distance, not as lunch buddies or carpool pals. That's no excuse -- you should know better. But I "get it."

And even some the most well-meaning, liberal whites still flip any story I tell to illustrate the perils of being a black woman in America, by insisting, "Well, that happened to me, once, too." Forgetting that it happened to them once, but happens to me, and other black folks, countless times. Daily.

I find it harder now, in fact, to discuss race with some of my white friends than it was back when we were young "radicals" in college. It doesn't make me angry. I know they care. But they, too, have hit a wall. There's no use talking about it. Nothing ever changes -- let's talk about the kids and things we can do.

But even in the best of times, when the middle class was growing and immigration was not an issue -- to most white people, anyway -- the dialogue about race was dicey. As a member of the African American Studies Department in one Tucson school district, I facilitated workshops designed to encourage "cultural competency" both in the classroom and other district departments.

But my colleagues and I quickly I discovered that all of the white teachers were "color blind," during our discussions. "We are all the same," they said. "I don't see color, I see kids."

But when we visited many of the schools in the district, we saw color -- read that "children of color" -- a lot. In the hallways. In corners in the backs of classrooms or sitting alone right up against the teacher's desk while other kids worked in groups. In the principal's office. In special education rooms often housed in portable buildings detached and some distance from the main school building.

And, in the suspension and other discipline statistics we kept track of regularly, to use as proof that the "Kumbaya" workshop banter did not reflect what actually happened in the classroom.

At one high school we visited, we found black and Hispanic children loitering on the front steps.

"Ask us why we're not in class," one of the boys said, his brown eyes hard, "closed."

When I asked, just to call his bluff, he smiled and said, "Nobody cares." And we later discovered that a disproportionate number of "at risk" black and brown children were being literally warehoused in a large, hangar-like room left over from the school's former vocational program. There, they sat or slept, after completing packets of insultingly easy worksheets within the first hour or so of their daily captivity.

Many "escaped" to the hallways, parking lot or even to those steps right outside of the building, knowing the teachers assigned to "baby sit" them were mostly relieved and would not report them. On the front lines, white teachers dropped the masks and admitted, openly, that they did not know how to teach African American children -- males, especially.

That was in the '90s. It is now 2014 and black people are still teaching their children what my parents taught me more graphically by taking me "down South" every summer in the '50s and early '60s, to drink from colored water fountains and ride in the backs of the buses.

It's dangerous to be "colored" in America. My fifth grade teacher was Mamie Till Mobley, whose son, Emmett, is still Cautionary Tale #1 in most black families, so I knew this first hand, early.

And my own African/Native American child knew it even before we had The Talk. I found that out when she told me, as a kindergartener in one of the best elementary schools in Tucson, that she wished she could "just be white like everyone else."

Even with a black man in the White House, we're still training our black boys how to be careful out there. I'm sure they're aware of the danger, having watched how some white people have treated that black president for the past few years.

So, it's not that I didn't want to write about Black History Month or Michael Dunn or the still very sorry state of race relations in America.

It's just that, I swear, given all of the above... I don't know what else to say.