By AMANDA BEAM
Few cars pulled up to the gas station that night with the brightly lit sign. It was 2 a.m., after all. If a major highway near Columbus, Ohio, hadn’t been unexpectedly closed, my family probably would not have stopped by either. We were on our way to Boston, in part so the children could experience firsthand the sites of early American history. Concord. Lexington. Bunker Hill. Old North Church. But with three kids in the car, potty breaks became as frequent as the static on distant radio stations. So we took a nearby exit.
Husbands tend to always get fuel when they make a pit stop even if it’s not truly needed. Mine is no exception. As he swore to himself at the pump about the slow processing of his debit card, my oldest and I walked up to the 1970s-style store. The night was sticky warm and a short line had gathered in front of a window, the only opening into the shop. On the other side, a man ran around gathering chips or Cokes or cigarettes for the customers. Toward the back, we waited as well.
And that’s when I noticed we were the only white people around.
If a society is truly devoid of racism, most of us wouldn’t have picked up on this fact so quickly. Impartial observation is one thing. Yet the awareness of the situation is never the problem. It’s the feelings that come along with it.
Deep down inside there was a rumbling that I ought to be afraid.
Now I’m no racist. At least I don’t think I am. After a second, the thought dissipated into the humid sky and I was back to smiling and laughing and talking with the people in that line. But still, for a brief instance, something bad bubbled to my mind’s surface. And I’m ashamed of that.
Most everyone nowadays is quick to distance themselves from these terrible feelings. We bury them under the guise of tolerance and equality and friendship. But dig far enough and a sliver of unjustified racism is still there, stored away like a secret family heirloom that just needs a good polish.
Back in 2006, University of Connecticut professor Jack Dovidio told CNN he estimated that up to 80 percent of Americans harbored racist feelings, many not even able to identify that their ideas were prejudicial. Called implicit racism, this type of discrimination takes a much more subtle approach than the old-time, white-hooded variety. A 2012 Associated Press poll revealed 56 percent of those surveyed concealed such hidden anti-black sentiments. And the consequences of this type of racism still can have profound effects.
Even though not overt, discrimination can still be taught from an early age. A photo on the nightly news here. An oftentimes disproportionate crime statistic there. General banter at the dinner table about someone different. Defining a race as the other by saying “those” people.
Pass the rolls, please.
Quite a few people want to say racism is a thing of the past. Equality, like our forefathers preached, belongs to all, and we as a society have met that mark. Of course, a couple of those same patriots owned slaves ripped from the shores of Africa, setting a precedent. We can say one thing and allow our actions to be another.
Like the good soldiers, some Americans carry on that thought process to a much smaller degree. Discussions of racism headline the news. Coverage of the Paula Deen controversy and the Trayvon Martin case are testament to that. That’s a start, I suppose.
America talks a good talk, but when it comes down to it, extreme socioeconomic differences still exist between races.
According to a 2013 Brandeis University study, the wealth gap between blacks and whites has almost tripled since 1984, mostly due to home ownership, inheritance and income discrepancies. White families had a median net worth of $265,000, compared to $28,500 for black families. Throw in education, health and incarceration disparities and you can start to see a pattern.
How much is covert racism a factor in these statistics? It’s hard to measure, but many sociologists agree that, over time, the effect contributes to the inequalities.
Each individual has a chance to change this. Whether Hispanic, Asian, white or black, or any other race, we must acknowledge that racism, no matter how subtle, exists. Openly discussing our differences and working together to overcome them also can help to bridge the gap.
When all else fails, stop by a gas station on the outskirts of town. It’s amazing what a kid’s small bladder can help you discover about yourself and each other. We didn’t even need a Revolutionary War battlefield for that.
— Amanda Beam is a Floyd County resident and Jeffersonville native. Contact her by email at firstname.lastname@example.org