Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know about Each Other

Afraid of the Dark: What Whites and Blacks Need to Know about Each Other


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The definitive guide for anyone who has contact with people of another race—in companies, schools, neighborhoods, or other social situations—this book asserts that race is not the unfathomable mystery it is usually made out to be. In a revealing, accessible, and stimulating discussion based on little-known facts and innovative research, this book explains why many whites are uneasy about blacks and how blacks react to this, why numerous blacks suspect the worst from whites, why white explanations don't hold up, why myths about sex remain so prevalent, and what both races can do together to make their relations better.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781556523427
Publisher: Chicago Review Press, Incorporated
Publication date: 03/28/2000
Pages: 360
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.04(d)

About the Author

Jim Myers was the chief writer of the USA Today series “Race and Sports.” He lives in Washington, DC.

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Afraid of the Dark

What Whites and Blacks Need to Know About Each Other

By Jim Myers

Chicago Review Press Incorporated

Copyright © 2000 Jim Myers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-56976-588-3



If We Could Just Be Friends

October 16, 1995, was a signal day for race in America. The cover of U.S. News & World Report featured O. J. Simpson, the giant letters O.J., and the message: "What Now? The Great Racial Divide." The cover of Newsweek said, "The Verdict: Whites vs. Blacks. Inside the Jury. O.J. and His Kids," and the magazine's lead article was headlined:

Whites v. Blacks

That was the day's principal message to the world. Also that morning, President Clinton left D.C. to deliver an address about race relations in Austin, Texas. The Washington Post printed his full text the following day; Clinton described the nation as "two worlds," one black and one white, divided along a "rift ... that is tearing at the heart of America."

But even as the president spoke, the heralded Million Man March was massing on the National Mall west of the Capitol and near the White House, which Clinton had left that morning. These two events, Clinton's speech and the march, showed how crazy relations can get between blacks and whites: a million black men assemble in D.C., the largest gathering of African Americans in U.S. history, yet the president flies 1,200 miles to Texas to give a major speech about race.

But the president wasn't the only white person who skipped town. The Million Man March was seen by many, whites in particular, as part of the tearing apart of America that the president mentioned. Elsewhere in downtown D.C., the streets on October 16 were curiously — strangely — deserted. Estimates were that at least 40 percent of federal workers in D.C. stayed home, but only 9 percent were black men who might have gone to the march. Most of the absentees were white. The Washington Post reported that commuter traffic from D.C. suburbs was down 70 percent — 70 percent! Suffice it to say that many whites in the D.C. area were uneasy about the Million Man March, some believing it would unleash violence and destruction in the city, because many whites still believe that is what large gatherings of black people are likely to do. Black people get stirred up, the theory goes, and rampage though the streets, smashing windows and looting stores. And woe to the white person who might get caught up in their midst.

Meanwhile, the mood was quite different in the D.C. neighborhood where my wife and I live on a tree-lined street of Victorian row houses near Capitol Hill. On October 16, our neighborhood, about 75 percent black, was filled with excitement that an event of such magnitude was taking shape nearby. Many men, young and old alike, were going to the march, and in that sense, the Million Man March was a very mainstream event in a black neighborhood, hardly a radical enterprise. Friends from other cities began to arrive at our house before dawn: guests including two carloads from Rochester, New York, my wife's hometown, and a van full of schoolteachers from Chicago. My wife's son, Sherod, came with her father, a retired factory worker, who, at 72, was in failing health but buoyed by the moment. "I never thought I'd live to see such a day," he said more than once.

Some explanation of what he meant is in order. The man we called Daddy was no angry radical, but he did like to listen to Minister Louis Farrakhan, who had called and organized the Million Man March. Sometimes, when Daddy watched Farrakhan on a cable access TV channel in Rochester, he would quietly say, "Get 'em, Farrakhan," because he liked the way Farrakhan stands his ground against white criticism. Maybe it is nothing more than that — here is one black man who refuses to back down. So when Daddy said he never expected to see such a day, we must remember that Daddy, who grew up in segregated Georgia in the 1920s and 1930s, believed that without a firm figure like Farrakhan, white people would never have allowed the march to happen. A million black men in one place? Hell, no. Whites would do whatever they could to stop that.

Understand, too, that Daddy was not alone in imagining that white people would be against the Million Man March. Prior to October 16, the subject of the march rarely came up among the black residents of my neighborhood without someone wondering aloud if it was a plot to bring black men together to kill them or cart them away. Some people said it with a laugh; some said it more ominously. And the same idea later popped up in Spike Lee's movie about the march, Get on the Bus. So it was part of the general consciousness of the day. It is a detail in a mind-set about white people that you will find in black America.

For those readers who believe that the concept of whites killing blacks or putting them in concentration camps is totally outrageous in the 1990s, I should insist that at least some black Americans believe whites are capable of such actions. And this is a measure of the extremes in our racial division. A less extreme view of the events of October 16 might be that one America, white America, was represented by the president's view that a rift along the color line was threatening to tear the nation apart. And another America, black America, was represented by the marchers who came to D.C. hoping that black Americans could come together to realize their full potential.

One day. Same event. Two totally different views of what was going on.

But race can also precipitate strange doings: the president flew to Texas, and when he got there, he spoke of the marchers in D.C., which he had just left, almost as if he were speaking to them personally. He praised their dedication to renewing personal responsibility in their lives. Then, in reference to Farrakhan, a figure most whites are extremely wary of, he noted, "One million men do not make right one man's message of malice and division."

Then, later that same day in his speech at the Capitol, Farrakhan spoke almost personally to the president, who was half a continent away: "Sir, with all due respect, that was a great speech you made today. And you praised the marchers, and they are worthy of praise. ... But, of course, you spoke ill, indirectly, of me as a purveyor of malice and hatred."

So much for dialogue across the color line that day. Perhaps more than we like to realize, it is a long-distance affair.

* * *

All this unfolded in the edgy time in American race relations just six days after a black-majority jury in Los Angeles acquitted O. J. Simpson of charges involving two murders that most Americans — most white Americans — thought he had committed. The racial divide and "playing the race card," a phrase that popped up to describe the maneuverings many whites believed to have produced Simpson's acquittal, were now troubling the nation — and many whites in particular.

Basically, it had come to pass that in months of watching the Simpson case, whites looked at blacks and blacks looked at whites as they had not done for a while. And they seemed to fix on certain notions about each other. Millions of white Americans were suddenly concerned that black Americans had strange thought processes, a topsy-turvy way of seeing in respect to the ways whites think and see things. And whites were suddenly much perturbed about this. How can we disagree — see things so differently — over an act so clearly wrong as murder?

The Simpson case shocked many whites, who awoke to a new or forgotten dimension in their understanding of race. Blacks and whites could seemingly view the same events and the same evidence on a matter involving right and wrong, yet draw such differing conclusions as to be incomprehensible to each other. Or so the media was repeatedly telling us. "Were we watching the same trial?" the October 16 Newsweek asked. "After the verdict, the two communities talked past each other, with passionate misunderstanding."

Journalists invested energy and resources in their "discovery" that whites and blacks saw the case so differently. Whites, journalists seemed to be saying, looked at the facts of the case — the evidence. Blacks, however, are suspicious of the police, and their attention turned to race when they heard that Mark Fuhrman, one of the detectives in the case, had repeatedly made derogatory statements about black people. As the case progressed, America was divided, so we were repeatedly told by journalists and pollsters, into black and white camps: whites thought Simpson guilty; blacks thought him innocent. (So, incidentally, Simpson was now rejected in the world where he had been most popular, and many black Americans noted whites can be fickle friends.)

Polls showed that this black-white split on the Simpson case started in July 1994, just after the murders. And it continued, largely unchanged, to October 1995, after the verdict in the criminal trial, when USA Today found 73 percent of whites said Simpson was "definitely" or "probably" guilty, and 62 percent of blacks said Simpson was "definitely" or "probably" innocent. That was it — in black and white.

This "racial polarization" was treated as news, even though such black-white splits in perspective were, in fact, nothing new. For decades, any poll about justice, the police, or prejudice in American society was likely to produce a similar split. Whites would say the justice system or the police are fair; blacks would say they're not. But no matter. In the rush to focus on the black-white split in the Simpson case, other aspects of demographic reality were overlooked.

For one thing, the racial polarization over the Simpson case, the "Whites v. Blacks" of the Newsweek headline, did not involve opposing groups of equal size. The "white" side was much larger — almost nine times larger in actual numbers than the "black" side — with the equivalent of 121 million white adults saying Simpson was guilty versus only 14 million black adults saying he was innocent.

So in simple numbers, "Whites v. Blacks" was a mismatch.

For another thing, black Americans who believed Simpson was innocent were also outnumbered more than two to one by the 33 million whites who also believed Simpson did not commit the murders. Get that? Black people, then, were only 30 percent of the Americans who believed in Simpson's innocence. But white America was never described as "divided" over the case. Nor did anyone fret about all those white people who thought Simpson was innocent. It was black people's views that were considered irrational, race-fixated, and upsetting to white Americans. So the Newsweek headline could have justifiably read:

Whites v. Whites

But it didn't.

This demographic irony might indicate that we have trained ourselves to focus on situations in which blacks and whites are at odds. If race is involved in a conflict, it is assumed to be much worse than when the same ideas are at issue in an argument between whites alone. As a result, journalists will find a conflict between 121 million whites and 14 million blacks much more alarming than a dispute between 121 million whites and 33 million whites who dissent from the majority view. Does that make sense?

But on the other side of the color line, black Americans are also likely to forget about the 33 million white allies who agreed with them and focus on the 121 million whites who opposed them — that is also in the nature of our thinking about race.

Still, the Simpson case provided a delightful trivia question that usually stumps any audience: "Who, demographically speaking, was the largest population group of Americans who thought O.J. was innocent?"

Everyone answers, "Black people."

No, it was white people.

And why those 33 million white people thought Simpson was innocent was never really explained or explored. Was there something wrong with their minds? Were they social outcasts and misfits? What was their problem? Yet most whites looked at black people strangely after the Simpson case, as if something had to be wrong with their heads or their eyes. They see race in everything. And they can't see beyond race.

Once such an idea gets planted in our collective thoughts, it is hard to uproot it. After the Simpson case, many seemed ready to assume there would always be differences between whites and blacks that preclude understanding or agreement across the color line. Scenes of black people cheering the nonguilty Simpson criminal verdict then further angered whites, who regarded the behavior on the part of black people as singularly tasteless and unseemly. Even if it was only a few blacks who cheered, what kind of people would cheer at a moment like that?

Meanwhile, journalists did a dreadful job of exploring what black Americans actually thought about the case. For the most part, they failed to recognize the fears a minority group might have in a situation like this. Many black Americans, my wife included, found the innocent verdict more a relief than anything else. Many black people had sensed themselves under heavy scrutiny from whites in the previous months, because the Simpson case raised the specter of a very common stereotype about black people: they're all criminals and murderers.

More than believing Simpson hadn't committed the crimes, many black Americans deeply hoped he hadn't done it, so white people wouldn't conclude from the Simpson example that all black people harbor desires to harm white people. Think of it: if the affable Simpson, who was so at home among whites, was believed to suffer from a hidden urge to kill white people, then all black people might be suspected of having the same such urges.

Yet Simpson's acquittal in the criminal trial did not work out well for black Americans either, because they were forced immediately to watch warily as whites fumed over the verdict. My black colleagues at USA Today used the word icy to describe the mood in the office — their white colleagues seemed suddenly distant and uncommunicative. Some white colleagues seemed icier than others. This, too, was noted — and who were the iciest ones and who were the ones who were a little less cold? Meanwhile, at least among themselves, many black Americans concluded from this iciness that whites are so used to getting their way that they get very upset when they don't. Eventually, however, the second Simpson trial — the civil trial — seemed to prove that whites, indeed, will sooner or later get their way. And it also showed that whites, too, will cheer the verdict in a murder case. Because shout and cheer they did in various instances shown on TV.

White Americans may not have realized the degree to which black Americans saw the Simpson case as a case study on white behavior. Few whites were even aware they were being watched — just as they were watching and drawing conclusions about black people. In one extreme case, a black man called the black D.C. radio station WOL to claim that the very brutality of the murders proved Simpson innocent; the killer had to be white. "We just don't kill that way," he said.

Whites might wonder: what was this guy thinking? Most whites don't realize that they go through life accompanied by stereotypes, and, in some eyes, they have a reputation for extreme or bizarre forms of mayhem — just think of Jeffrey Dahmer, who ate some of his victims. His name comes up in black circles surprisingly often as an example of scary white behavior. It was also possible for black people to conclude the following from the Simpson case:

• Whites will always be suspicious of black people.

• No good comes from getting too involved with white people.

• Whites can easily turn against black people, even those they claim as their friends.

Such ideas are still to be found along the color line. Similarly, whites could just as easily see from the Simpson case that old stereotypes and fears are valid:

• Black men are inherently violent and lust for white women.

• It's dangerous to associate with black people, even those who seem charming and friendly.

• Black people will always stick together, even in support of blacks who commit murder.

Much of this theme is nonsense, but there are those who believe at least some of it is true all the same. Still, as it affects long-term relations between whites and blacks, the most destructive impression arising from the Simpson trials was that racial differences produced two verdicts — a "black" verdict in the criminal trial and a "white" verdict in the civil one. As viewed by many whites, the verdict by the black-majority criminal jury was irrational or, at best, swayed by emotional appeals about race. And the verdict produced by the white-majority civil jury involved a more reasoned approach to the evidence, not emotional appeals. Therefore, in simplest terms, the Simpson case produced — or reaffirmed — an unfortunate portrait of race that haunts everyday relations between blacks and whites, and these ideas are as old as the hills: blacks are irrational and get carried away with emotion; whites are rational and can control their emotions. The fault line between these two assumptions crosses innumerable misunderstandings between blacks and whites — and here it was underscored in one of the most highly publicized murder dramas in the 20th century.


Excerpted from Afraid of the Dark by Jim Myers. Copyright © 2000 Jim Myers. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Foreword by Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.,
Introduction: What We Don't Know And Why Me?,
1 What's the Problem? If We Could Just Be Friends,
2 Trouble with Numbers Why Can't We Count Straight?,
3 The Color Line The Partitioning of Our Minds,
4 A Divided Landscape Where We All Want to Be,
5 Tuning Each Other Out Segregation in the Information Age,
6 In the Mirror Do We Like What We See?,
7 The Story Line Good Guys and Bad Guys,
8 Dogs and Monkeys Tracking Our Worst Thoughts,
9 Discussing Race Some Silence Isn't All That Golden,
10 Slavery Our Past Is Never That Far Away,
11 Wild Ideas Can You Believe This Stuff?,
12 White Culture The Ways of White Folks,
13 Black Culture The Ways of Black Folks,
14 Women and Men Does Size Make a Difference?,
15 Heroes and Villains What's Sports Got to Do with It?,
16 Getting It Right Give a Little, Get a Little,
17 The Golden Rule What About the Self-Evident?,
18 What to Keep/What to Toss Away Giving Good and Bad Ideas Their Due,

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