In the aftermath of the events in Ferguson, I’ve decided to do what most people recommend but few actually do: I’ve begun talking about race with those who are different from me.
I’m a white man who grew up in a white town. So, I am incapable of understanding what it’s like to grow up as a black man in the urban core. Just as I don’t know what it’s like to grow up Santhal in India.
But I want to understand.
Conversations with Strangers
I travel for business. Twice in the past six weeks I’ve found myself waiting in an airport for my flight. In both cases, grabbing a quick bite in a restaurant presented an opportunity to have separate conversations with two black men. *
Both men were fathers. One was white collar. The other blue collar. One was college-educated, the other had a high school degree only.
Both grew up in North St. Louis near Ferguson.
In both cases, I was the one who broached the subject of race. Each conversation was remarkably comfortable. Not a shred of awkwardness. Both men seemed eager to share his story, pleased that someone cared enough to ask.
After a bit of small talk, I began with a simple question.
Stephen: A CEO of an Environmental Consulting Firm
“Do you fear for your son?”
He answered immediately. “Not in D.C. But if we still lived in St. Louis, yes.”
Stephen smiled. “Because it’s St. Louis.”
As if on cue, his little 13-month old son squealed and spit out his french fry.
“Too hot?” he asked, pushing away the fries. “Let them cool down a bit.”
The father and son sat at the table next to me in the Schlafly Tap Room at the St. Louis airport. I’d say Stephen was in his mid-30s. Impeccably dressed. Casual, but professional. His demeanor was quiet, confident. It was clear he was an attentive father.
“Doesn’t D.C. have racial issues too?” I asked.
“Not like St. Louis. I grew up in North City St. Louis. Near where the Pruitt-Igoe projects used to be.”
“Pruitt-Igoe? Never heard of it.”
“It was a project on the north side of the city. West of where the Edward Jones Dome is now.”
After some research I learned that Pruitt-Igoe was a housing project built in the ’50s. It was composed of 33 buildings. It quickly spiraled downward, marked by crime, poverty, and segregation. It was leveled in the early 1970s.
“My mom still lives a block from the site, so I saw it the other day during my visit. It’s a wasteland now.”
“Did you experience racism when you were growing up?”
He chuckled. “All the time.”
There wasn’t a hint of resentment in his voice. It was as if he was reporting on the weather.
“I was bussed to Kirkwood during desegregation.” Kirkwood is an overwhelmingly white suburb of St. Louis. “I was one of only a few blacks in the school. We were ostracized. So, I stuck close to my friends from home.”
“Have you ever been pulled over by the police without cause?”
“Many times. The worst time was during the winter. They put me in cuffs and sat me on the curb. My coat was in the car. I sat there freezing while they ripped up my car searching for drugs. They didn’t find any. I’ve never done drugs.”
“Why did they pull you over?”
“I asked them. They said, ‘You were speeding’ and ‘We saw you smoke marijuana.’ But they never found anything because there was nothing to be found.”
“Didn’t that infuriate you?”
“You can’t get angry. That’s how you get hurt or killed.”
Fernando: A Union Electrician
I was standing in a crowded TGIFridays at DFW Airport waiting for a table. I glanced over at a black man sitting at a two-seater table. I smiled. “How are you doing?”
“Great. You want to sit here?” He motioned to the empty seat.
“Do you mind?”
“Not at all. My name is Fernando.” He offered me his hand.
He was dressed in jeans, a sweater, and basketball shoes. Probably 35 years old. He looked solid, strong. He was bald with a closely cropped goatee. A large, silver cross hung around his neck. When his food arrived, he bowed his head and prayed.
When he raised his head and began to eat, I said, “I appreciate the fact that you prayed before eating. I do the same.”
“You gotta give thanks, man. No matter how things are going, you have to thank God.”
Fernando is a union electrician from St. Louis. For the past several months, he’s been working on a large construction project in Shreveport, Louisiana. He’s a foreman overseeing dozens of electricians. He works three weeks straight and then comes home for 10 days.
He grinned as he told me about his three kids. The oldest was 14. The others were 4 and 3.
“My second son — the 4 year old — was a surprise. Oops.” He laughed. “My three year old is a girl. I finally got my baby girl. I am a blessed man.”
“Listen,” I said. “With everything that’s gone on in Ferguson, can I ask you two questions?”
He laughed. “I know where this is going.”
“I bet so. OK, my first question is this…how did a black man get a name like ‘Fernando?’”
He bellowed with laughter. “My Dad liked the name. Simple as that.”
“Fair enough. My second question…do you fear for your sons.”
His smile faded. “Yeah. I do. I pray for them all the time.”
“Did you experience prejudice growing up?”
“Oh, yeah. I had a buddy who lived up at 270 and Florissant Road.” That intersection is just north of Ferguson. “I was pulled over nearly every time I took my buddy home.”
“Really? Why’d they pull you over?”
“No reason. I finally got tired of it, so I started taking the interstates all the way around. It took me longer but I just stayed off the city roads.”
“That’s never happened to me,” I said. “I’ve been pulled over many times, but I had it coming. Speeding, usually. But I’ve never been pulled over for no reason.”
“As a black man, you learn to fly under the radar.”
“What do you mean?”
“Drive under the speed limit. I don’t do anything that looks suspicious. I keep my head down.”
“What did you think of the Michael Brown situation?” I asked.
“It should’ve gone to trial. Listen, Michael Brown might’ve been wrong. He might’ve gotten up in the cop’s face. But the case deserved a trial, you know?”
He continued. “Young, black men are angry. They get tired of it all and do stupid things. I tell my 14 year old son that he can’t be like that. ‘You gotta keep your cool,’ I tell him. ‘Or you might get hurt. It ain’t worth it.'”
“But don’t you think it’s better today than in the past?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Seriously?” I was dumbfounded. “Think back to the ’60s and ’70s. The civil rights era and segregation. Surely it’s better today than it was back then.”
“I don’t think so. Back then you knew where you stood. If someone hated you, they told you straight to your face. Today, I don’t know where I stand. You could smile at me and say nice things, but inside you really hate me and might try to stab me in the back. I’d rather know where I stand with someone, you know? Give me the truth. Be straight with me.”
Where Do We Go from Here?
Stephen and Fernando were strangers to me, so there’s no way for me to be sure that they were telling the truth. But they appeared sincere and trustworthy.
And even though their stories were remarkably similar, I cannot say for certain that their experiences are representative of all African-American men. But their stories align with the accounts we’ve all heard in the media.
I don’t pretend to know how to fix the racial tension in the United States. There are hundreds of underlying factors that have created mistrust between the races.
But I’ll keep having the conversations. It seems to me like a decent start.
* In this piece, I used “black” more often than “African-American.” I did so intentionally out of respect for both men since that is the word they used most often to describe themselves.
Questions: Have you had any recent conversations with those who are of a different race than you? What have you learned? Share your experiences in the comments below.