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Fortunate sons

By Chris Colcord

Fort Wayne Reader

2008-07-07


As a classic solipsist I've refused to believe that the world exists except in its relationship to me, so, consequently, it's taken me quite a while to realize how profound many social crises have become in my city. I have to have everything happen before my eyes before I can register what's been obvious to everyone else. I've always vaguely known that race relations, for instance, aren't great in Fort Wayne, but I never investigated it or gave it a second thought until it presented itself directly in front of me. And when it did, I almost didn't believe it.

It happened like this — I was walking down Broadway near St. Joseph's Hospital. An African-American woman was across the street, walking with her toddler, when a police car went by, sirens screaming. The kid, pointing excitedly at the lights and sound, looked to his mom, who said, laughing, "Better watch out! Or the policeman will come after you!" She then made a spooky, ghostly sound, like the cops were monsters. I was astounded. I had just recently had a son and never in a million years could I imagine speaking a similar sentiment. I had always accepted that cops were a necessary and impartial force of social order, an unyielding yet respectable part of the community. When my son got older I'd reinforce this. It never occurred to me that anyone could view them as malevolent, untrustworthy bogeymen ready to pounce on the unsuspecting. For the first time I was forced to see that social conditions outside of my orbit were a lot less scrutable than I had imagined.

It's embarrassing to admit to such naiveté, but in my defense I'd like to point out that it was easy for me to see the world as a fair place bursting with potential. I'm a white, straight, college-educated male born of upper middle class parents--the world is wired for guys like me. As long as I played by the rules, the career and the home and the boat on the lake were destined to be in my grasp. I had no reason to question the way the world worked because the world worked for me. Unfortunately, though, I couldn't keep my feet on the right road and in one of my many side trips I discovered further evidence of the inequalities that are so pernicious in my city.

In court, Monday morning, waiting for my lawyer to arrive so I could begin the process of beating my DUI down to a Reckless Driving charge, I did a quick inventory of the defendants awaiting their turn before the judge. African-Americans make up about 13% of the general population, yet on this day in court fully half of the arrested were black. Equally surprising to me was that no African-American in court that day had retained a lawyer. Not one. I had one, a number of frat boy-looking white guys had lawyers as well, but none of the African-Americans had representation. And when it came time to make a plea, almost every African-American pled Guilty. No trial, no chance for further working of the system — just Guilty and let's get this over with. It was if they accepted that any other option simply didn't exist for them.

It was at this point that I knew I had to scrap my long-held, guilty liberal platitudes about tolerance and equality and admit that African-Americans live in a different Fort Wayne than I do. My parents, good Kennedy-era progressives that they were, had always drummed into my head that everyone was equal, but that became impossible to believe. I've never been shadowed in department stores. I've never been pulled over because of my skin color. How could I possibly relate to my black friends that have? It seemed a paradox, but the only way I could begin to establish true tolerance in my thinking was by first acknowledging that I'll never be the same as African-Americans, gay Americans, Latino Americans, Asian Americans. Only after I allowed myself to see the world as a segregated place was I able to do something about attacking the prejudices that have always existed inside of me.

It's almost impossible these days to write about race without adding a qualifier that shows how tolerant you are — note how I slipped in "my black friends" in that last stanza, to prove how enlightened I am — yet the upcoming presidential election demands that we loosen our correct language for just a moment and really examine the stark racial landscape in our country today. In must be noted that in the Indiana primary Barack Obama took 55% of the vote in Fort Wayne, and while I'm not sure what that all signifies, it does suggest that the attitudes about race in our city are evolving. No matter how bad the state of the economy is, no matter how divisive the war continues to be, the 2008 election will be, first and foremost, a referendum on race in the United States, and I only hope that like me the citizens of this country will continue to try and learn what America is truly like for all of its peoples.

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