Between the World and Me ( http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/17/books/review/ta-nehisi-coates-between-the-world-and-me.html?_r=0) is described by Toni Morrison among others as “required reading.” I read it this week, almost in one sitting, as way to break through my own numbness surrounding the seemingly endless chain of lost and shattered black lives at the hands of police. A group among our faculty has been discussing the book and yesterday I attended for the first time. In the group, one white participant, described a feeling of being let in on “secrets” of black life in America. I know what she means. There have been moments in my adulthood, never in my childhood, where I encountered those “secrets.” They were and are shocking and let me know how much has been kept from me to keep systems of racism in place.
As I’ve written before, my first real social work jobs, post MSW, were in the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. Ta-Nahesi Coates, the author of Between the World and Me, lived not far away and the experiences of his early life were similar to others I saw played out for young black men and women there. I was well-intended and had an African-American supervisor. Only because of her did my “well-intended” begin to change to “well-informed” which kept my complete naiveté and stupidity in check. Here are things I learned. Like most major teaching hospitals, Hopkins is physically located in the midst of a primarily black, impoverished neighborhood because this gave the hospital access to unusual diseases and people that had no other way to get treatment making for easier development of new treatments. This is a sanitized way of saying what a mother once said to me, “I don’t like coming here. They experiment on poor black kids.” At first I thought she was “paranoid” or “psychotic.” My supervisor told me, “You understand that she is correct, don’t you?” No I did not. I could not have imagined that such a thing would be true. How did I not know this? Because it’s a secret. Next, as a doctoral student at age 29, I took a class at UNC’s law school: Constitutional Issues of Race and Poverty. I sat spell-bound learning how the African-American population functioned as this country’s sacrificial lamb over and over again, the crucible on which the country was forged. I had never learned this in a history class or a civics lesson. I was almost 30 years old before I learned even a bit of this history. It was a secret history only unveiled to those that for whatever reason stumbled upon it or sought it out.
You might say, that was a long time ago. What about all the great equalizers like the GI bill that created a solid American middle class? After all, many people of many backgrounds suffered mean fates prior to WWII because of poverty and exploitation. Indeed. But here’s the secret that I learned a year or so ago through a training given by the Racial Equity Institute (REI). The GI bill was extended to many returning veterans following WWII. My dad was one of them. What I didn’t know was that most African-Americans occupied military jobs that were ineligible for the GI bill. Further, for those that did have access to GI bill funding, there was the subsequent hurdle of trying to find a college or University that would accept African-Americans. Even those eligible could not always find a place at the educational table. These are systemic injustices and secrets that ripple out over generations. Combined with red-lining, neighborhoods systematically dismantled by highway placement, and other systemic discrimination policies, the ability to create the intergenerational wealth and stability that has served white America quite well, has not been present for very long in African-American life. These realities have been invisible to me and to most white people because no one or nothing makes us think about them. Why would I wonder about why highways are where they are or consider how they have impacted particular neighborhoods? I don’t have to because they never come through my neighborhood. I’ve heard about the GI bill my whole life as great policy decision that changed America. It did change white America and in so doing left black America further behind. It’s the second half of that sentence that is the toxic secret that keeps me, as a white person, essentially estranged from black people, no matter how “well-intended” I am. My faith doesn’t save me either because “I see through a mirror darkly.” I live in a veiled world in which I think I know the facts. But it’s the secrets I don’t know that are the important bits. Such secrets are legion in our national life. Like all secrets we are ashamed of, they damage our relationships, our thinking, and our collective decision-making.
One day in the teen clinic a young mom brought her beautiful little boy in to be seen. There was concern that he had been sexually abused in day care situation. He was pre-verbal and gave no indication that anything was wrong. The mother came because someone had seen a worrisome interaction and she had been referred for a physical exam. I had noticed this young woman and her child before because they were a stylish, good-looking pair. He had the cute, little boy plats that were common to boys under the age of two. She was well put together in boots and a jacket in the latest style. She was a bit stand-offish toward me and, before this, we had no real reason to interact; she was my supervisor’s client. But that day, I was with her through this experience. When the physician told her that her child looked fine, no lasting harm had come to him, that she had done the right thing bringing him in and keeping him out of the setting where the concern arose, she began to weep deep, grief-like sobs. At first, I thought it was simple relief, an outpouring of the worry and fear she had been holding inside. But my heart felt something different, something I couldn’t quite name. The memory came to me this past week, so many years later, as I read Between the World and Me. Her tears, I now realize, told a terrible secret; she could not be a good-enough mother in America to keep her beautiful black son safe. Even though he had dodged that particular bullet, there were too many others waiting that might take her by surprise. I wonder where he is now.