January 17, 2012

The Most Racist Thing That (n)Ever Happened.

I’m seventeen years old. I’m visiting the home of my friend Chris, in Staten Island. We read comics and his mom makes us peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cut diagonally. The next day, someone paints “nigger lover” on his garage, in big red letters.

This is not the most racist thing that has ever happened to me.


I’m twenty-eight. I’m working on Wall St., in the energy sector. It’s 10 A.M. and I’m just settling into the stack of reports requiring my attention. The news sweeps through the office like a tsunami: OJ Simpson, not guilty. The Senior Analyst of the Oil and Gas group comes up to my desk and asks “is it okay for white people to start looting now?”

This is not the most racist thing that has ever happened to me.


I’m thirty years old. My date looks like she put on her dress with a spray-can. We’ve finished playing pool and now we’re having a drink at a pub. Her mouth is writing sweet, filthy promises, that I believe her body has every intention on cashing. The large burly gent next to us seems to be having a good time as well; so good in fact that he–quite accidentally–bumps into my date. Her gin and tonic splashes all over her new dress, ruining it, and the mood.

I tap “Burly” on the shoulder. “I see you’re having a good time with your friends” I say, “and I don’t want to interrupt. But you–accidentally–bumped into my date, and spilled her drink all over her new dress. I’d appreciate it if you apologized.”

“You goddamned, stupid, fucking nigger” he spews. “Do you have any idea where you are!?” He’s drunk and angry and looking for trouble. It’s clear I’m about to get some action, just not the kind I had in mind.

A minute later and the five of us are outside: myself, my date–who just wants to go home and is cowering behind me–Burly, and two of his friends. “Okay you stupid fucking nigger” he shouts, “what are you going to do now? There are three of us, and one of you.”

“This is easy” I say, pointing at his friends. “I can either beat all three of you up, or I can just beat HIM up. You two are free to go.”

His friends–who’ve clearly been pressed into “take-care-of-our-drunk-loudmouth-friend” service before–apply the better part of valor, and leave. While I’m taking off my coat, Burly throws a haymaker in my direction. My martial arts training kicks in; thirty seconds later and I’m sitting on his back, his wrist–agonizingly twisted the wrong way–in one hand, and a fistful of ginger hair in the other. He’s spitting venomous epithets at  me when it occurs to me that, despite not being the aggressor, should a police officer wander upon the scene, I’m likely going to jail. I end the fight, and leave.

This is not the most racist thing that’s ever happened to me.


I’m thirty two years old. I’ve just left my car–a canary yellow 1972 Buick Skylark convertible–at my mechanic in the Bronx. I’m walking to the subway when three police cars screech to a stop around me. Six officers jump out of their cars–guns drawn–and suddenly I’m trying to think clearly enough to answer the questions that are being yelled at me as my legs are kicked apart and my face is shoved into a wall.

I’m calm. I’m polite. I think of the (then) recently deceased Amadou Diallo, and curb my genetic tendency towards sarcasm. The officers check my identification and make sure there are no warrants for my arrest. After it’s been determined that my story checks out, I ask the officer closest to me why I was stopped. He tells me that I “matched the description of a suspect,” and as he answers, he notices me taking note of his badge number.

Without explanation, I’m handcuffed, unceremoniously stuffed into the back of a police car, and taken to Central Booking, otherwise known as “the Tombs.” I descend a staircase deeper than the pits of Avernus and am placed into a holding cell. It’s unclear if I am being arrested; in fact I’m never told what’s going on. There’s a phone but it’s out of order. Four hours go by. I’m surrounded by genuinely dangerous people, who for reasons beyond my comprehension, are leaving me completely alone.

Eight hours pass. By now I’ve missed work. Twelve hours after I drop my car off at my mechanic, an officer comes down with a stack of papers and begins to call off names. I’m being released; apparently no charges were filed against me. My property and my freedom are returned. I receive no explanation and no apology.

This is not the most racist thing that’s ever happened to me.


The wonderful part about the experiences I just described is their overtness. Once, racism was men in hoods burning a cross on your lawn. It was separate entrances and separate water fountains and the back of the bus, and if people didn’t know their place it was okay to remind them who’s in charge. The great thing about those folks was: at least you knew where you stood. A man with a noose has clear intentions, about as easy to spot as a harvest moon on a clear autumn night. In a best case scenario, with a bit of discretion, you could avoid these people entirely. In a worst case scenario, you could at least defend yourself.

The problem with today’s racism is: nobody ever actually admits to being a racist. Refusal to acknowledge a problem is in fact, tacit compliance.

Modern racism is the insidious undercurrent that keeps classism aloft. It’s city planning that isolates certain neighborhoods, depriving them of civil services. It’s public schools in “low income neighborhoods” with overcrowded classrooms and dangerously outdated facilities. It’s the bank loan for the new business that you don’t get even though your credit is good, because you’re “high risk.” It’s using Jay-Z, Oprah and Michael Jordan as examples to prove race-based income disparity no longer exists.

If overt racism is a noose, institutionalized racism is carbon monoxide: just as lethal but more pervasive and far harder to detect.


My best friend in the world happens to be an insanely wealthy, drop dead gorgeous blonde. Not long ago, I was conversing with her husband about a recent case in Auburn Washington, where a (black) man was arrested for attempting to deposit a bank check made out to him. “Your wife” I said, “has walked into a bank, kindly explained to a teller that she’d forgotten her identification, and walked out with pockets full of cash.”

“That’s true” he said, “but you can ride the subways at 3 A.M. and not have to worry about being attacked.”

“That’s probably true” I conceded. “Want to trade?”


Touré, a novelist, journalist, MSNBC personality, and contributing editor at Rolling Stone, currently has an essay on the Atlantic entitled “The Most Racist Thing That Ever Happened to Me.” Unsurprisingly–at least to me–when 105 interviewees were posed this question, the most common response was, “the answer is unknowable.”

I’m wont to agree.

A brief perusal of the comments sees the vitriol this topic provokes rise to caustic levels. The (perceived) anonymity of the internet emboldens cowards; opinions are frequently expressed online that would otherwise never see the light of day. Personally, I try to avoid engaging such individuals in pointless argument. As my Mom would say, “never wrestle with the pig. You both get filthy, but the pig enjoys it.”

Instead, I’ll simply ask: what’s the most racist thing that’s ever happened to you?

© j summers 2011

* This originally appeared on The Good Men Project 9/21/11

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