Racism today: a personal experience

I usually write analytical pieces for my weekend stints here at the Political Animal, but this one time I’d like to share a personal story of racism in America from my experiences of the past few days. Conservatives like to pretend that racism is dead in America, but that’s largely because in conservative areas racism is as inherent to the culture as oxygen is to the air.

This week I went to Houston to undertake a Foresight Certificate Program at the University of Houston. There were several African-Americans among the students, and after the daytime classes many of the students would go out for dinner, drinks and socialization. Two experiences above all stood out to me.

The first experience was after dinner with two of my fellow students, both African-American. After dinner they tried to hail a cab in Houston’s busy downtown area on a quiet weekday evening. I had never actually seen the phenomenon of cabs ignoring the hails of black passengers before; seeing it in person was eye-opening. No fewer than three cabs showing their availability slowly passed right by their hails without even pretending to acknowledge their existence as human beings. And these guys were professionals in business casual–imagine how much worse it would be if they were wearing jeans and a t-shirt, much less clothing that reinforced negative stereotypes.

The second experience was even worse: the program chartered a small bus to a popular local restaurant for the group. About half of the class attended, including one of our black fellow students. After our group had sat down to the table, the owner of the restaurant–an elderly white gentleman in a cowboy hat–came up to us. He was evidently annoyed at how our small bus was parked in the large, mostly empty parking lot. He immediately made a beeline line to our young black colleague, chewing him out for how he had allegedly parked the bus. It took multiple attempts to convince him that our fellow student was not, in reality, the bus driver merely because of the color of his skin.

Coming from California, these sorts of things are shocking. Yes, there is racism everywhere and California is no exception. But the experience of it in in more conservative areas is so much more overt and ghastly.

That Republicans can even pretend we live in a post-racial society is appalling and absurd. You don’t need to cite structural racism and endemic discrimination to prove otherwise. You just need to live in a conservative place for a day or two to see how preposterous their claims are. The racism isn’t just institutional: it’s constantly overt and in your face.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.