2013 Revealed Harsh Reality Of Racism In America
For Verdis Daniels Jr., the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer in 2013 showed that maybe America hasn’t come so far since Daniels was an academic star at Texas’ Nacogdoches High School in 1976.
That year, Daniels scored so well on the PSAT that the local newspaper, The Daily Sentinel, featured him in a photo with his counselor and an assistant principal. A few weeks later, police ended Daniels’ educational hopes by arresting him on charges of robbing an elderly woman. The teenager happened to share one characteristic with the actual mugger, who was described as several inches taller and wearing different clothing: skin color.
Daniels, who was walking home from his dishwasher job at the upscale Hotel Fredonia near Nacogdoches City Hall, was not physically harmed like Martin, but he was targeted for the same reasons — he was a young, black man who looked suspicious to a white man. The acquittal of Florida neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman in Martin’s killing reminded many African-Americans that those reasons endure.
And 2013 — the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march on Washington to declare his dream — brought with it other reminders of the nation’s ongoing struggle with racial inequality. Besides the Martin case, the Supreme Court nullified a key provision of 1965’s Voting Rights Act — one of King’s landmark victories. The decision added fuel to a surge of voter identification laws that generally suppress minority voting.
After the Zimmerman verdict, President Barack Obama reflected on the discrimination that many African-Americans still feel. Martin, Obama said, could have been his son. The president recalled how when he was younger and not famous, people sitting in cars would lock their doors at the sight of a young black man walking down the street. The people in their automobiles may not have thought their actions betrayed racism or prejudice, yet the youthful Obama knew he posed no threat, so their instincts to seal themselves behind steel and glass stemmed from baseless fear.
Supporters of George Zimmerman chose to deny the truth of that experience, and said the shooting of Trayvon Martin had nothing to do with race, although the teen was black. Supporters of voter I.D. laws — nearly all Republican-backed — say such legislation has nothing to do with race, although they admit it is partisan and the people in the other party are disproportionately Latino and black.
Supporters of both insist racism is mostly over in America, pointing to that Supreme Court decision. Their advice was "Get over it."
So, The Huffington Post reached out to black Americans like Verdis Daniels (also the congressmen in the above video), and asked them to share daily experiences on the wrong side of racial interactions, from casual, unthinking slights to more deliberate discrimination.
In Daniels’ case, the racism appears to be of the more deliberate, pre-Civil Rights Act variety that was common in Texas in 1976.
The police chief, M.C. Roebuck, had lost civil rights cases in federal court by then and was looked on with fear in the black community. The “colored” jail had only recently been closed. People still knew whose office in the stationhouse used to be the colored bathroom.
Daniels recalled how he was ensnared in the legal system, walking home from the dishwasher job he had landed recently to put a little spending money in his pocket. It was just two weeks after his picture ran in the Daily Sentinel for being named a National Merit Scholar semifinalist, a feat that flagged him as an academic up-and-comer in the East Texas community. He still has the newspaper photo of him smiling with his mentors. But that night, someone who didn’t resemble Daniels knocked down an elderly white woman and snatched her purse. An officer arrested the then-17-year-old, and threw him in jail, despite the different description.
"Nothing matched at all," said Daniels, who instead of capitalizing on his high test score and preparing to apply for college, had to prepare a criminal defense. "During the time when applications were supposed to come in, I was in limbo," Daniels said. "I didn’t know what was going to happen to me."
A civil rights lawyer recently arrived from the Northeast, Martha McCabe, championed his case.
"The police were ridiculous," McCabe recalled, singling out the chief, Roebuck. "He thought that his mission from the merchants of Nacogdoches was to suppress and oppress the black population," she said. "Really, the black population lived under a certain kind of martial law."
The district attorney at the time, David Adams, decided to prosecute the case, putting it in the hands of a deputy who McCabe recalled as “snarly and straight-up racist.”
Daniels had the good fortune of facing his charges at the end of an era. Roebuck was near retirement and Adams did not run for reelection. The new DA, Herb Hancock, took over in 1977, and didn’t think much of the case. McCabe remembered a reaction she got from him several times when she represented clients who didn’t merit prosecution.
"He used to say, ‘Oh it’s just another case of felony dumb-ass and the young stupids, and I’m not gonna pursue it.’ That was music to my ears," McCabe said.
Daniels isn’t bitter about the derailment. He went on to the Air Force instead of college, and said life has turned out well for him. “My story turned out a whole lot better than it could have done,” he said.
But he still tries to stay away from Nacogdoches, even though his mother lives there. And he still feels the daily sting of unthinking prejudice, which college and higher degrees would not have fixed.
About two years before Daniels achieved his high test scores, a young woman from Youngstown, Ohio, named Kim Akins did similarly well. She won scholarships and was accepted to nearly every college where she applied. Now 55, Akins went on to become a lawyer, and for several years, an assistant prosecutor in Youngstown Municipal Court.
She never ran afoul of the law, but her experience of prejudice is no less constant. When she served as a prosecutor in family court cases, court officers would mistake her for a defendant’s girlfriend. Riding in her Jaguar with her husband, who is white, she’s been pulled over repeatedly by police, who suspected her of being a prostitute.
"For whatever reason, they have not figured out that there are interracial marriages allowed in this state, so the only reason a black woman can be in a car with a white man is because she’s a hooker," Akins said.
Even when the car registration had Akins’ name on it, and she was sitting there in the passenger seat of her own vehicle, an officer would ask her husband, “Does your wife know where her car is?” Akins said.
HuffPost’s request for comments brought many submissions detailing interactions with police and other security professionals, or just suspicious white people in stores and neighborhoods. But the answers also highlight how the suspicion on one side fuels the divide, leaving African-Americans distrustful of white people and in fear of the police or anyone, such as George Zimmerman, who may have the power to take life or freedom.
Renee Taylor, of Fort Washington, Md., signed her submission “Mother Living In Fear.” Her tale concerned her son, David, who was her nephew until she adopted him after his father was shot to death on David’s fourth birthday in an act of street violence.
Taylor said her son was 25 when his outlook on police changed. Officers on a burglary patrol decided to stop him and a friend while they were walking to a store, based on no descriptions at all.
"He and his friend were made to sit on the ground, subject to interrogation, and had to justify their presence in their own community," Taylor said. "They were demeaned and treated as of they were criminal. Just their mere presence made them suspect, as with Trayvon Martin.
"Something in my son died that day. He tried to remain calm and respectful, to contain himself while still asserting his rights, as he knows too well how the police label anything as resistance," she said.
Afterwards, David vowed that he would not sit passively if his rights were similarly abused again, Taylor said.
"I saw the look in his eyes, felt the sadness in his heart and spirit. I saw irreparable damage to his manhood," she said. "I worry every time he leaves home. I have an unfair burden of the unknown and the anxiety of what might be. I want my black son to live. I want our black sons to live. I feel as if his death warrant was signed that day with an execution date to be determined."
Of course, most people do not walk around in fear, and Akins and Daniels figure that things are better now than when they were teenagers. But if you’re black in America, you’re seldom just a human walking around minding your own business.
"It’s nothing that you want to run around the room screaming, ‘Oh that’s racist.’ But it’s there every day, and that burns in your psyche," Akins said. "Every day there’s something. If you can get through the day without being reminded that you’re black, you’ve had a good day."
What Akins hopes comes out of 2013, if not change, then at least the realization among more white Americans that discrimination remains and more change needs to happen.
"If you don’t have to deal with it and you never see it, then clearly it’s not happening," Akins said. "I think the hard part for white people is that you have to acknowledge that people who look like you go through the day and do things to people who look like me. So you’ve got to justify not feeling any guilt. No black people I know want anyone to feel guilt, they just want them to stop doing what they’re doing.
"It’s like air. It’s better now. Don’t get me wrong — it’s definitely better. I might go through a couple of days where nobody has to remind me that I’m black."