Biographical Non-Fiction posted July 19, 2020

This work has reached the exceptional level
The beginnings of wisdom

Understanding Racism

by lancellot

When I was a boy in the 80s, my friends and I used to ride our bikes from the Westside of Chicago into Oak Park. My reasons for going into the white people's neighborhood (That's what we called it.) in part were to look at the big houses, clean streets, and manicured lawns. I especially enjoyed their park on Ridgeland Avenue. Trees, green grass, laughing children, and quiet shady spots to read filled that park. We called it TV Park. It was unlike our neighborhood park, filled with broken glass, graffiti, trash, drug dealers, and gang members.

Now, some of the other boys I used to ride with had different motives for going, and once I understood they wouldn't change but would change me, I stopped hanging with them. While I looked at the big houses and beautiful lawns with wonder, some of the guys looked on with envy and hate.

I recall vividly one early summer's day. Four of us rode our bikes across Oak Park Avenue from Chicago and into the suburban Village of Oak Park.

"I feel like throwing a rock through them bitches’ window," Tyrone said as we were stopped in front of a large white house with a pristine green lawn.

The rest of us stared at the unusually large houses in wonder. Besides us, the street was empty. There were few cars and the only sounds were us, birds, and the distant hum of lawnmowers. Why white people didn't hang out on their streets or porches was always a mystery to us. Aside from the early mornings, when they would run from no one for exercise, they were usually gone.

"Do you know who lives here?" I asked, seeing the angry look on Tyrone's face.

Tyrone shrugged. "Some white people. Probably think they better than us."

The rest of the boys and I instantly knew it was about to go down. You think you're better than us. To this day, that phrase always precedes violence. Better than everyone or anyone else is the one thing you are not allowed to be.

"Let's bust their shit," said Jayson as he and the rest of us began searching the ground for rocks or bricks.

"There ain't nothing here." Big Mike was slow, but he knew how to break things. If he said there was nothing strong enough to do the job, it was true.

"Look at this sidewalk and these streets." Tyrone looked around. "It's always clean where the white people live. They never clean our streets."

There were murmurs of agreement from the group. Augusta and Central, the block we lived on, was a mess. The streets seemed to grow potholes; the sidewalks were littered with broken bottles and trash. Overgrown weeds replaced the grass. It was night and day from the luxuriance of Oak Park.

"That's because they hate us. I should just…" Jayson froze with his head, turned to the side.

We all turned to see what he was gawking at, when-

A single flash of blue and red light from an Oak Park Police car lit up our faces. We were so consumed in what we were doing; we missed the white and green cruiser until it was on us. The car slowed to a stop, and a white cop leaned out the open window. "What are you boys doing around here? Are you lost?"

We all looked at each other and then to Tyrone, but he said nothing.

"We were just on our way to the park. That's all, "I lied, hoping he wouldn't ask more.

The cop looked at each of us and then at the house. "That right? Well, it's getting late; you had better get on home. It can be dangerous out here at night."

That last part was a code we all knew. During those days, some police would either beat your ass or take you into a rival gang's territory and leave you there. If you made it home, great, if not - oh, well.

No, we weren't in a gang, but gang-bangers didn't carry or ask for identification. If you were a young black or Hispanic male, it was assumed you were affiliated, and if they didn't know you, then you were the enemy.

We turned our bikes east and rode back for Chicago as fast as we could. The police car followed us for about two blocks and then left us. My heart was still racing from the fear they put in us, and for the vandalism, I was almost a part of, when someone shouted.

"Look! Look at them two." Tyrone pointed across the street at two white boys about our age wearing baseball uniforms, but they had no bats, foolish. They were walking and had not spotted us.

"Let's fuck 'em up," Jayson chimed in.

Just then, the two boys saw us, and for a moment, time froze. I saw naked fear in their faces, as they no doubt noticed the evil intent in ours. Without waiting to confirm our intentions, the two boys took off running like rabbits. It was a wise decision because they were prey.

"Get 'em," Marcus yelled and started after them.

"NO!" I stopped in the road. "The police are still around. Fuck this shit." I rode my bike straight for home. Do not misunderstand me; I didn't care about those boys at all. I simply believed the police were nearby and watching, and I had no intention of joining my cousin in the Audy Home or dying by a nightstick.

The other guys slowed and watched me leave. Then Jayson turned his bike around and joined me. A few seconds later, the two white boys were blocks away, and my group continued back to Chicago in silence and disappointment.

That night I told my older brother what happened. He didn't say anything, just nodded his head until I was done.

"Is our lawn messed up and dirty?" he asked.

I shook my head. "No."

"That's because we keep it clean and mow the grass, just like the people in Oak Park. Are you and your friends going to break our windows too?" He stood and walked away.

My brother wasn't a talker, but I did think about his words, and over the years, many things began to make more and more sense. Were the police in Oak Park racist? Did they profile us?

I don't know if they were racist or not. Did the cops profile us?  Yes, but given what we were about to do. And what many others had done, were they right to do so?  If the cops had not stopped because they saw a group of black boys in a white neighborhood, would we had eventually found rocks to smash the windows of that beautiful house?  Would probably have been caught doing it by those two white boys? I have no doubt the answers are yes, and then we would have beaten those boys to a pulp. Hell, we didn't even know if people were home. What if they were and had a gun? Or they had a baby by the window?  Did what we wanted to do to them mean we were racist?


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This happened back when I was only 12. A boy on the road to becoming a man.
Were we racist, were the cops? Is the word racism simply used to mask so many other troubling and misunderstood things?
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