America Runs on Race

I understand why people don’t want to talk to their barista, of all people, about race. I can also understand why they don’t want to talk about race at all before, well, before they’ve had their coffee in the morning. Still, it is a conversation we need to have, and I applaud Starbucks for at least attempting to do something about it.

From Ferguson to New York and everywhere in between, there has been a great deal of evidence recently that at least when it comes to race, we are not one nation, united. Whether or not you side with the officers or the protesters or both or neither, it is clear that there is a great deal of anger in many communities.

Last week I had an academic curiosity in understanding whence all that anger came. This week, I very much want to know, and if it takes talking to the girl behind the counter (Dunkin Donuts doesn’t have baristas) to gain some clarity, I’m willing to do it. What changed from last week to this? I was called a racist. Not only that, but it was so early in the morning that I hadn’t even put pants on yet, much less had a cup of coffee.

I am a landlord, and one of my apartments will soon be empty. I went out of my way to accommodate a prospective tenant because I know he is in a tough position, and having been down on my luck before, I wanted to help if I could. I had very kind and generous landlords as a renter, and I have enough on my soul without acting like the unforgiving servant.

In the end, I decided that he wouldn’t be a good fit, and told him via text that it wasn’t going to work out but wished him luck in finding a place. When I woke up the next day he had responded by saying that he was going to “chalk it up as not having the right complexion.”

To say I was flabbergasted would be an understatement. I have been accused of many things before, and many of them have been true, but this was a first for me. I started to respond by saying that I knew he was black from his website before he even showed up at the door, but decided I didn’t even want to have that conversation with him. I usually keep a pretty even keel, but the day after St. Paddy’s Day, he really got my Irish up. It stayed with me all day, and still bothers me.

It would be better if we could #RaceTogether. But why don’t we already? I really, really want to know why this guy would immediately assume that the reason I decided not to rent to him had anything at all to do with the color of his skin. In fact, the woman to whom I eventually rented has skin several shades darker than mine, and I’m very much looking forward to being neighbors with her for a long time to come. So why was that his first response? What made him draw that conclusion?

One of my favorite people of all time is Bobby Kennedy, and in the past few days I’ve been going back to the words he spoke the night Martin Luther King was shot:

We can move in that direction as a country, in greater polarization — black people amongst blacks, and white amongst whites, filled with hatred toward one another. Or we can make an effort, as Martin Luther King did, to understand, and to comprehend, and replace that violence, that stain of bloodshed that has spread across our land, with an effort to understand, compassion, and love.

How little we have progressed since Bobby Kennedy spoke those words on April 4, 1968. Two short months later he would himself be taken down by the bullet of an assassin with similar hateful motives. In his eulogy, Ted Kennedy prayed that “that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.” Amen to that.

I grew up in one of the most Irish towns in the most Irish state in the Union. I went to college in a majority black city, but spent the vast majority of my time on my lily-white campus.   The only time I’ve ever been in the minority was when I lived in a place with no racial majority, and in any case it was the most racially harmonious place I’ve ever seen.

The people mocking Starbucks may not “have time to explain 400 years of oppression to you & still make my train,” and I get that. I would be happy to buy your grande double mocha latte if you would explain it to me, however. I’ll make the effort my hero asked me to make decades before I was born. I’ll even buy your next 400 coffees if that’s what it takes.

In the meantime, like Bobby Kennedy, I hope you will join me in saying a prayer for our country and for our people. We clearly need it.