The last two years have been especially turbulent with regards to race relations in the United States. I have written a couple of posts on aspects of this but never really anything much directly on the topic. What I write her will be somewhat biographical as I deal with my direct experiences with the reality of race relations in America. Before I visited the United States, I had a very different image of it born mostly through cinema and television. So while I knew about the “urban” demographic, I had a more romantic idea of the reality. Actually going to America and seeing and experiencing this with my own eyes as well as hearing it from Americans had me rethinking a lot of my assumptions and not in the way the powers that be would desire.
These were all experiences from fifteen years ago as of writing and things have clearly gotten a lot worse. This isn’t just a “this one time I went to New York and saw a mugging” story either. In fact, I didn’t witness any crimes directly. What I did was see a lot more of the country than most tourists do and spent time directly with Americans away from famous landmarks and tourist trails.
The first part will be my experiences while attending college for a semester and I will warn people that find this browsing or by chance that this will be *ahem* racially insensitive but I add (no doubt pointlessly), that I harbour no ill will to Black Americans.
My first experience with Black America was on a university campus. Here, it was mostly limited as the white and black students tended to self-segregate. The exception to this was in the International dormitory where I stayed. Here there was quite a mix from all over the world but the black students were from Africa and there were only a couple of them. On campus, I sometimes saw groups around but this was rare apart from one experience which will come later.
The first time I saw something of what Americans see in their cities was on a trip to Richmond, Virginia with some friends. I don’t know about now but at the time, it was a lovely city. At least during the day time it was. We went around taking photographs of the statues that have probably all been destroyed or desecrated now. We even sought out Jefferson Davis’ house used during the Civil War. I have always been fascinated by the American Civil War and I had a lovely day.
Reality came at night when I left the music club we had gone to with my friends — which was also the impetus for going to Richmond. The contrast could not have been more stark. I walked out onto streets with the reflection of police strobes all around and sirens very near. Even the two Americans I was with looked nervous but the police presence was quite heavy. I can’t remember whether we walked out or caught a taxi but we got out safely. I had never seen anything like it. In the city in my home town in the most notorious night spots, the police seldom have to deal with shootings or extreme violence but that’s certainly what seemed to be happening that night. Of course growing up, it was considerably less diverse where I lived too.
Something else was the homeless. At first I assumed these people were genuine and happily handed over one dollar bills to most I passed. This was until I realised just how many there were and began to suspect the begging was somewhat organised. The people I was with were liberals and though I haven’t seen them for a long time, they are probably on the same side as BLM and Antifa today. They never gave them money.
A few months after my experience in Richmond, I to Panama City Beach, Florida during Spring Break. To immediately deflate what readers might imagine, this was a trip with Christian Missionaries. At the time I was close to apostacy and generally speaking, didn’t live or behave as a Christian should. Nonetheless, I respected that the students I was with were serious about their Faith and I behaved myself during the trip.
By chance, one part of the trip took us for a day to New Orleans around six months after Hurricane Katrina had hit the previous year. As we were with a Christian group, we had gone to do some cleaning up and spent part of our day clearing debris from a single apartment building. It was far from the ideal way to see New Orleans but even in hindsight, the city doesn’t sound like it was much better before the hurricane.
Almost every single person I observed cleaning up (including the group I was in), was white and this despite this demographic representing less than half the population of the city at the time. Most people had left the city but I occasionally saw blacks around though not doing much. Our own contributions were meagre and it was more of an experience than a genuine contribution to relief efforts. Despite that, the young men and women I was with earnestly wanted to do good without expecting anything worldly in return.
Up until now, my experiences with Black Americans had been mostly indirect. Personal relations the few times they had come up had be cordial. There were few (if any) that I can recall in the classes I took which were English and History classes. This changed rather starkly when I had the opportunity to go on what I believed was called an “Experiential Learning Trip” to the deep south. For me this looked like a very cheap way to see a lot more of America over the weekend and I jumped at it. I should add that I was generally very sympathetic to blacks at the time like most people of my generation though I was skeptical of aspects of the civil rights movement. Nothing I’ve learned or experienced since has led me to think I was wrong to be so either.
Almost everyone who went was black and I was one of the token whites but my memory is fuzzy and I only remember faces. Everybody in the group was friendly with each other and there were no issues during the trip which had a general theme of understanding and reconciliation between students. Looking back with recent events in hindsight, it is very difficult to believe it happened at all. It couldn’t happen today if the white students weren’t willing to self-flagellate themselves when not begging forgiveness. Contemplating that for a moment, I suppose it could easily happen today too.
The only thing I noticed about the black students I was with was that most of them weren’t very bright. Some were but most of them clearly weren’t intelligent enough to be in college and I have to wonder what classes they were doing if they couldn’t even handle the humanities classes I was doing. In fact, to go on a bit of tangent, very few white students I met seemed like college material either. I was about twenty-two at the time and did most of my assignments at the last minute with the rest of my time spent clowning off. I managed a 3.5GPA for the semester when I felt I deserved way worse — and I would have likely scored worse in my homeland. My professors even seemed somewhat impressed with me and I am not highly intelligent. Dionysian revelry aside, it is not clear why so many go to college at all.
Back to the trip, the real observations came not with the company but with where we visited which included Atlanta, Georgia as well as Birmingham, Montgomery and Selma, Alabama. There may have been another stop but I had to go searching to refresh my memory on these places. If you’re American you probably can guess where I went. I saw the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr., the bus stop Rosa Parks got on at and a number of museums and other famous sites. I used to have a lot of photographs of all this and my mum probably still does.
At the time, I did have some idea of the mythmaking that had gone with these people and events but I voiced none of this at the time. What immediately struck me was just how over the top it all was — to the point of gratuity. There was one local park we visited with metal statues of savage police dogs attacking blacks. There was an eternal flame in Atlanta for MLK. Everything was right in your face and I wonder for example, how children are supposed to play in a park with statues like that all around them? All the people I was with were taking it very seriously though.
Despite all that effort put into aggrandising the civil rights movement and its leaders, the areas around these places where blacks lived were still awful. In fact, comparing them to MLK’s childhood home, they are considerably worse. His home is actually nicer than the one I live in now. There were ghettos and squalor everywhere and this of course, was still somehow the fault of white Americans generations later.
The positive side to the end of the trip was one of the black academics that joined us pointing out that these movements began and ended in the Church. This leaves out the agitation done by outside groups but this was still a nice refreshing statement to hear in such company as man’s true dignity is only found with God. This sentiment was subsequently ruined by them connecting civil rights with gay rights to murmurs of agreement.