What Some of Us Simply Don’t Understand about Race in America

It seems to me that recently I’ve been talking about race a lot. There are some people in our society who live smack dab in White suburbia. They don’t see race as an issue. They look at race as something that is a throwback from the 1950s and 1960s. They look at civil rights legislation, affirmative action and other measures as having “fixed” the race problem. The recent uproar over deceased Harvard Law professor Derek Bell is an excellent example of how some folks don’t understand, refuse to understand the depth of the race problem in the United States. Race has infused every bit of our society. Sure, we would like to think that everyone has equal opportunities. We would like to think that everyone in the United States has the ability to grow up and be Barack Obama. The fact is that simply isn’t true.

Back in 1999, a 23-year-old New Guinea immigrant named Amando Diallo died in front of his own apartment complex in a hail of police bullets. This unarmed man looked “suspicious,” which caused the police to shoot 41 times. The police officers were acquitted. My question is whether this young man, had he been an Italian immigrant or an Irish immigrant, would he be alive today?

Traymon Martin

Yesterday, I posted a tragic story about Trayvon Martin. He was a 17-year-old male who was watching the NBA All-Star game with his father. At halftime, he walked down the street to get some snacks at the corner convenience store. On the way back, he was confronted by a neighborhood watchman (a vigilante). Somehow, a confrontation ensued and Mr. Martin was shot and killed. How does this happen? If Trayvon had been White, would he be alive today? Did the tension that continues to exist between Whites and Blacks contribute to a gross misunderstanding? Did George Zimmerman see Trayvon Martin as a young high school student or as some opportunistic, hip-hop washout in baggy jeans? One of the lingering questions in this tragic case is why George Zimmerman is not in jail. If the situation were reversed, if George Zimmerman was walking in a Black neighborhood and he was shot and killed by a Black neighborhood watchman, would that neighborhood watchman have been arrested on the scene?

Eric Perez

Eric Perez was an 18-year-old arrested back in July for possessing a small amount of marijuana. By all accounts, he walked into jail as a healthy young man. Several hours later, he was dead. He died of head injuries. He spent most the night “hallucinating vomiting soiling himself and seeking help from guards who ignored him.” How does this happen in a colorblind society? As a trauma surgeon, I work with prisoners all the time. I’ve seen prisoners brought to the ER and admitted to the hospital with significant injuries and also with minor injuries. How do you let an 18 year old die without medical attention?

When you grow up in the United States as a person of color, you hear the stories. You know people who’ve been arrested for no particularly good reason. You know people who’ve been followed by the police because they were “in the wrong neighborhood.” Hell, when I was at Emory University in Atlanta, during the early ’80s, I got to know a lot of the guys on the Emory police force. Why? If I was walking on campus after 10 PM, it was not uncommon for me to get a police escort. I would just be followed. So, after being followed several times, I decided that I would go and introduce myself. I would go talk to them. Before you knew it, they would start following me and then recognize who I was. They knew that I was a student on campus. I would wave at them and they would wave at me and they would move on. The point is that you shouldn’t have to get to know the police in order not to be bothered.

Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow, highlights a lot of the inequities that we see in the criminal justice system. For me, the tragedy is that the criminal justice system, more than anywhere else in society, is supposed to be colorblind. It isn’t. When we combine this information with what we saw in the PBS special, Slavery by Another Name, we begin to formulate a picture of the criminal justice system. This system, which is supposed to be colorblind, is instead rigged against minorities. So, as you’re sitting in White suburbia, it’s easy for you to type on your HP computer that Derek Bell is a racist. I was sent the following tweet a couple days ago: @ecthompsonmd I’ve listened. [to Derrick Bell’s speeches] When one views every societal economic & political event through the lens of race & us v. them, it’s racist. In my opinion, this tweet reveals ignorance of a complex problem that still persists in our society. Race does infuse every aspect of our society. Is it better today than it was 20 or 40 years ago? Yes. But we still have a long way to go.


12 Responses

  1. This is so completely true. Racism didn’t end because we elected a black president. It doesn’t end until the events that Dr Thompson describes no longer occur. Racism is like a stab wound to the back. The patient is better once the knife is removed but there is still healing to be done. In America today, only the knife has been removed

  2. And I disagree that it is always better today than 20 or 40 years ago.  Today’s drug laws have become the equivalent of peonage for many black folks.  They are being incarcerated at incredibly high rates to benefit a prison industrial complex.  States would rather build prisons than schools.  You don’t see white college kids being sent to prison at the same rate for drug use.  

  3. I didn’t say always. there are no absolutes. I think that in general it is better. There are several times when we see racism and it smacks us in the face. 

    WE have significant work to do to make this a better place. 

  4. Thank you for offering your voice, talents and time. You could easily be silent about these matters. Knowledge is power. If people knew better, my hope is that they would do better. Race unfortunately does matter. I wish we could wish it away, wash it away, smother it but it continues to rise up and rear its ugly, harmful head. How can anyone deny racism. Just stop and look around and listen…. deep breath

  5. Hello sir, I was interested in your article after the second sentence.  I am a white male from Wisconsin.  I have never lived in a “White Suburbia” nor would I want to.  My mother raised me to be “colorblind” as you say. Wisconsin is not very diverse at all, especially in my city. Due to my mother being a single mother we lived in mostly areas of town where people of lower income lived.  The “slummy area.”  In that slummy area lived black and hispanic families that i often visited.  I do understand that racism still goes on in the world and I do recognize it.  I do not want to sound ignorant at all when i say this but I feel that racism still exists because people cant get past what happened to their ancestors.  I am not saying that people have to forget slavery and the racist acts done to “people of color.”  I just feel that there are just as many racists out there, as there are colored people out there looking for those racists.  Sir I am married to a hispanic woman I had a child with her and could never imagine someone performing a hate crime on her or making racial slurs towards her without authorities handling the situation.  I love my family regardless of the color or the family members of mine who may make jokes about her race. While in the military I have been to several sides of the U.S.  In cities, or areas of cities, that I definitely did not feel comfortable in.  I went out with an African American friend of mine to a “Black Club”  while stationed in Washington D.C.  I never felt so uncomfortable in my life.  I had so many men looking at me as if I didn’t belong.  A few of them expressed it to me.  Saying things like “Why are you here?” as well as “Too many people at the country bar?”  I do not have a country accent nor do I dress “country.”  In that situation I did not run to the rooftop and shout racism.  Was it racism?  Or was it just hatred?
    Am I just another ignorant “White male.”  If the role was reversed and it was a black man in a “Country” bar in “White Suburbia” would he be treated worse?  I get so angry when people ask that question.  If the roles were reversed and the same thing happened would it make things okay?  Would it be considered racist?  I am not saying the Zimmerman case wasn’t racism.  But what if it wasn’t the color that triggered the argument?  What if it was personality what if it was attitude?  Why whenever its white on black is it racism?  Thank you for your time and understanding.  Please understand I’m a person who wants to see many sides of the situation not just the one “White” side.

  6. GT – 

    Wow, you covered a lot of ground. I guess the first thing to say is every one has some prejudges. This is human nature. We learned thousands of years ago to trust those from our tribe and distrust those who aren’t from our tribe or clan. We must fight our tendency to look at others with our jaundiced eye. 

    I don’t think that we need or should try to be color-blind. Instead we need to try to have empathy for others. If someone at that club would have had empathy for you and simply came over and said hi. What’s up? That’s would have been so helpful in trying to get everyone to relax and have a good time. 

    I have been the only Black man in a C&W joint. It was interesting. There were some nerves. There were some looks. There were those who wanted to know what I was doing there. 

    We must continue to try to fight stereotypes and prejudges. Trayvon Martin appears to have been stereotyped by George Zimmerman. Zimmerman assumed that Trayvon didn’t belong in that neighborhood. So he was “up to no good.” 

    Thanks for your comments. 

  7. Mexican grabs 140lb bro.He beats his face in.Paranoid people told him it was oki to carry a gun and protect us.Apple nuts I’m sure.Buy gum with your phone.No.NBPP

  8. I am a multiethnic woman with a bi racial teenage daughter! She doesnt believe that racism still exists! She ignores my lectures and stories about racism and is in denial about her emotional, spiritual and physical well being. Ignorance is bliss…..

  9. keep talking to her. racism isn’t dead. It isn’t even taking a nap. It is everywhere. Sure there are no signs stating Colored only here but have been to a CEO boardroom recently? How many Blacks, Hispanics and women are up in there? Is it because Blacks, Hispanics and women simply don’t want to be successful? I doubt it.

    There is a reason that Blacks have a total net worth of just over $2000 and whites have a total net worth of over $100,000.

    I’m just saying…just keep talking to her. Soon it will sink in.

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Errington C. Thompson, MD

Dr. Thompson is a surgeon, scholar, full-time sports fan and part-time political activist. He is active in a number of community projects and initiatives. Through medicine, he strives to improve the physical health of all he treats.


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