When racial incidents make news, my friends and neighbors cannot avoid bringing it up. We may start out trying to have a normal conversation. How’s the family? Will it be the Warriors vs. Cavs? You planting anything this spring?
Then, without so much as a pause, we are back there. Reliving every incendiary incident through gritted teeth: napping while black, Airbnb while black, Starbucks while black. The list of what black people cannot do before someone calls the police seems to go on and on.
Going back, way backward.
“It’s like the post-Reconstruction era,” said a neighbor, recalling the violent backlash to black progress following the Civil War.
It is an eerie comparison.
“The KKK is recruiting,” a friend said recently, sounding as if it were just another company seeking employees. He lives in Colonial Beach, Virginia, where the Klan had spent a day last month passing out fliers.
I saw the flier that the Westmoreland News, the weekly paper published near his home, decided to run on its front page — racist language and all. One of my neighbors took a glance.
“I guess we’re not in Wakanda anymore,” he said.
The movie “Black Panther,” with its supernatural black wonderland called Wakanda, had come out in February. The feeling of empowerment the film left us with was all but over now. We were back to racial reality.
For the people in my suburban Maryland world, even those who tend to mind their own business, who seem to pay more attention to their lawn mowers than current events, the constant bombardment of racist incidents have broken through the grind of daily life. That “pursuit of happiness” thing can become one joyless trudge.
So, we talk about it — at the tennis courts, the supermarket, on the telephone, during visits to one another’s homes. Venting. Reassessing the racial climate. Recalibrating our social radar.
Last May, a young black Army officer from Bowie State University was stabbed to death while walking past a white student at the University of Maryland at College Park. The white student was arrested and charged with murder and a hate crime. He turned out to be a member of some white supremacist Facebook group called the “Alt-Reich Nation.”
Since then, the assault on black bodies and black psyches have multiplied.
“You see where that white girl called the cops on the black girl for sleeping in the common room at Yale?” one of my friends asked. A black Yale graduate student — how much work went into getting her ready for an Ivy League humiliation?
On Friday, another black Yale student, this time a young man, said the same white woman had reported him to police just for being in the same building.
Someone just assumes you do not belong in a certain space or just does not want you in the space — and the police are at their beck and call. You can be questioned, intimidated, arrested. Or worse. Police shot and killed 20 unarmed black people last year; seven so far this year, according to The Washington Post.
Racism = death. In a lot of ways.
“Scientists and doctors have spent decades trying to understand what makes African American women so vulnerable to losing their babies,” read a story on the NPR website last December. “Now, there is growing consensus that racial discrimination experienced by black mothers during their lifetime makes them less likely to carry their babies to full term.”
For black women, racism and the stress it causes may be a greater predictor of having a low-weight baby than smoking cigarettes, according to a study in the Journal of American Public Health.
Black people of a certain age, with a firm grasp of history, know exactly what is going on: Inequality and racial disparity are the byproduct of an economic system built on slavery and white supremacist ideology.
I suspect there is something deeper going on for both the young and the old. Having a white woman call the police on two guys for sitting in a Starbucks, or on a young woman for taking a nap, is not something any of us thought would be the theme of 2018.
Courtland Milloy is a columnist with The Washington Post.