I have this habit I’ve developed as I’m running in the city: as I pass people, I look them in the eye and either give them a nod or a wave. Often I say, “hi.” This generates one of two reactions: either the pleasantry is returned or it’s totally ignored. I continue to do this because the city can be a cold place and, maybe by just acknowledging that other people exist, I can help make it a little warmer.
I don’t think I’d fare too well in NYC.
So Kelly and I were walking in Over-the-Rhine on Saturday to a friend’s house; Kaelyn was camping and we were picking up some soccer tickets for that evening’s game. Twenty years ago, our presence in that area would have been conspicuous, as very few white folk walked those streets. After the interstate highway system destroyed the housing of poor blacks in the West End, Over-the-Rhine was a primary landing place. Decades later, the gentrification in Cincinnati’s urban core has invited a culture clash like none other in American history: a mixing of age, economics, and race that is unparalleled.
As we moved up the block, we approached some black teenagers walking toward us on the sidewalk. I know how teenagers are, so I don’t break stride or path, but I’m also not going to deviate from the habit I formed. I looked at them, nodded, and said, “hey.” The response from one of the young men was anger.
“F*** you! You don’t know me! I’m not your friend.” And then he called me a gay slur.
I just kept walking.
I never looked back, either for a confrontation or out of fear.
While that’s a lot to process as you’re just walking down the block, living in the city, it didn’t surprise me. Even though that reaction was unlike any I’ve had in a long time (and, in fact, I normally get far better responses from impoverished black people than affluent white people) I can fully understand the anger in that young man.
First, teenage boys are most angry humans; in virtually every culture, they’re trying to display their masculinity, so challenging me is perhaps a biological response. Second, there’s still an immense amount of baggage with issues of race and socio-economics in this community. And if you study Cincinnati history, you understand that it’s not a recent development; this goes back a couple of centuries. So for better or worse, I was a visualization of all that they believe is wrong in that neighborhood.
And most importantly, the current race climate in this country is at a boiling point. I am not convinced much has changed except that the populace is becoming aware the America that some of us love so dearly does not love all of its people equally. Acknowledging this fact does not negate the many blessings we have from living in this nation. That’s a tension I know some of us are grappling with, but it needs to be said: admitting there are still race issues, and admitting that you’re ashamed of it, does not make you any less patriotic.
I’ll admit that, if I didn’t live in the city, shoulder-to-shoulder with both rich and poor, black and white, I’m not sure I would be as aware of it. So if you’re white, and you wonder what all the commotion is about, it doesn’t mean that you are racist. But it should motivate you to fully investigate the tension. As reports continue to emerge about police shootings, you can question what happened without being anti-police. More than anything, we should be pro-human.
I believe a true understanding of Christianity brings this to the forefront. We’re reminded that people, even those with the best of intentions, are flawed. We can’t be perfect, so acknowledging imperfections in people or systems needn’t be a polarizing perspective. Last July, in a sermon to our church, I grappled with this issue after a tumultuous week. If you’re not a person of faith, you might not think it’s applicable, but I believe there’s some biblical truth that speaks to this issue. If you have some time, I’d invite you to click on this link, give it a listen and see what it does to your heart.
So don’t just pray about the race issue, do something. Much advice on specifics has been dispensed elsewhere. Be persistent a search out solutions.
By the way, on the return trip down that same street, we passed by a black man sitting on a porch stoop; I didn’t see him so I didn’t say hi, but he saw me. He see misinterpreted my FC Cincinnati shirt for a Bengals’ shirt.
“Who Dey!” He yelled at me while he smiled.
“Who Dey back at you!” I responded.
Do not fear what you do not understand. Acknowledge sin. Love others.