Jeff Pearlman

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Black, White, Sad All Over

Screen shot 2013-07-15 at 11.28.19 AMBack a decade or so ago, I was standing along the concourse of the Cubs’ spring training stadium out in Mesa, Arizona, having a conversation with Howard Bryant, the great ESPN.com writer (and author of some amazing books). We were chatting about this or that when a white couple approached, holding tickets. They ignored me and turned directly to Howard. The man said, “Can you show us where our seats are?”

Howard, as sharp as they come, looked at the guy as if he’d spit in his coffee. “Do I look like an usher?” he said.

The man apologized and slunk off.

Howard Bryant is African-American. I am not. There was absolutely no other reason the man thought Howard was an usher while I wasn’t. None. All four of us standing there knew exactly what he was thinking, and Howard’s six-word response brought me great joy; joy I still feel sitting here, a decade later, in a New York coffee shop.

I thought of this exchange a couple of days ago, while sorting through my anger over the George Zimmerman verdict. I do not know, from a strict legal standpoint, whether the jury was wrong or right in their interpretation of the law. What I do know is that, across America, millions of blacks understand exactly what it feels like to be trailed by a clerk through a department store; understand what it feels like to stand on a curb for 25 minutes as empty taxis pass by; understand what it feels like to have people cross the street when you (especially a young you) come strolling from the opposite direction. This is not something some blacks experience, or most blacks experience. It’s something all blacks—like, 100 percent of American blacks over the age of, oh, 15—can tell you about in one form or another.

That’s why, when whites say, “This case wasn’t about race,” I feel like vomiting. It was all about race. George Zimmerman spotted a kid walking through his neighborhood. He grew suspicious. Why was he suspicious? Not because the kid was eating Skittles, and not (in and of itself) because the kid was wearing a hooded sweatshirt. He grew suspicious because he was tired of this shit; tired of young punks (common translation: black kids) committing crimes. So he called 911. And then, when the operator told him to hang back, he ignored the advice. He followed. Because that’s what you do when young punks walk through your neighborhood. He couldn’t leave well enough alone; couldn’t just return home and let the police handle things.

He just couldn’t.

I vividly recall being a kid and having my best friend walk up Emerald Lane to my house. He was one of the few black faces in town, and people stared. They stared and stared and stared. Because they were uncomfortable. Because they were put off. Because, well, what would a black kid be doing on these streets? There had to be a reason, right? Had to be?

I know many whites (whites who I know and like) who will read this and groan. Zimmerman was attacked. We have a black president. Times have changed. Blah, blah. It’s nonsense. Times have changed, but not as many people like to believe. I feel like, as a white guy, I grasp how many of my pigmentation think. They put on a good face; shake hands and smile and invite a guy in for a beer. But there’s genuine hesitation; genuine confusion.

What, they wonder, does this guy really want?

And what the hell is he doing here?

  • M8r

    Stand your ground means stand your ground, unless it’s to shoot a black kid then stand your ground means follow to his ground, shoot him dead.

  • joe

    I sure wish Mr. Bryant have said something different than “Do I look like an usher?” He had every right to answer that way, but does it really accomplish anything? Perhaps a respectful (maybe soul-sucking) “Sorry, I’m not an usher” would have given the offending couple food for thought. Instead, usher or writer they walk-away thinking “Asshole!”

  • Dunny10K

    I don’t totally discount what you say here, but it cuts both ways. First off there is nothing like annecdotal evidence from a decade ago to make a point stale. Also look at the evidence that is known here:even by the FBI’s numerous interviews all Zimmerman knew about the kid that sparked his concern was that he was in a hoodie and standing/walking slowly in the rain which is what aroused his suspicion. Also cutting both ways when you have one of the most venerable news organizations in the country purposefully editing a 911 call to make Zimmerman look racist. It was cast in stone from the outset, Zimmerman was racist and despite the fact that there is no evidence to this, we still get people like you spouting off about it.

    • roenga

      So walking/standing in the rain at night wearing a hoodie while being black is suspicious?
      So what are you proposing? A curview for all black males combined with a strict dress code (suit + tie maybe)?

  • Jake Ketcham

    I think George is a coward and might well be a creepy ass cracker – anyone see the footage of him being questioned by the female detective – but I think the evidence as to the recent burglaries and the description of the suspect was HUGE. If the burglary suspect was described as white, and Trayvon was white, the same tragedy would have unfolded.

  • Jake

    To suggest that we live in a terribly racist society in which all African-American males suffer needlessly at every turn does an incredible injustice to those who truly suffered through the awful racism that did, once, permeate this country.

  • Jdub

    What would happen if me (as a white guy) was strolling down the street in a black neighborhood? Peace and Harmony? I think I would rather get weird looks.

  • Black Guy

    As a black man, your article angers me. When you say ALL black folks have experienced this, it’s really insulting. I only get followed by white bitches who are tired of their man’s little french fry and want to ride a brutha. What’s so bad about that?
    Just so their is no misunderstanding, white men hat black men because we f*%k your women well!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • llanoes

    Of all the young black shooting victims in this country, you can name 1. Because you’ve been trained like a circus seal to bark on command. https://twitter.com/iowahawkblog/status/357298655335694340

    This no longer is about George Zimmerman, it’s about a Department of Justice serving political interests. There’s a reason we stand up for the rights of individuals like George Zimmerman against an overreaching State. It’s not just about the individual. It’s about all of us, and the reality that there but for fortune could go you or I. The highly politicized Department of Justice desperately wants to bring federal charges to placate the race-agitators, and has joined in the witch hunt. http://legalinsurrection.com/2013/07/feds-want-zimmerman-any-way-they-can-get-him/

  • JMW

    If NBC hadn’t doctored the 911 tapes this wouldn’t be about race.
    Actual 911 call Transcript – (My notes in parentheses.)

    Dispatcher: OK, and this guy is he white, black, or Hispanic? (911 asked)

    Zimmerman: He looks black. (Zimmerman answers but doesn’t seem to be absolutely certain)

    Dispatcher: Did you see what he was wearing? (911 asks what he is wearing. These are good questions in case a crime happens it helps identify a “person of interest”.)

    Zimmerman: Yeah. A dark hoodie, like a grey hoodie, and either jeans or sweatpants and white tennis shoes. He’s [unintelligible], he was just staring… (Since he was asked he told them it was a hoodie)

    Dispatcher: OK, he’s just walking around the area…

    Zimmerman: …looking at all the houses.

    Dispatcher: OK…

    Zimmerman: Now he’s just staring at me.

    Dispatcher: OK—you said it’s 1111 Retreat View? Or 111?

    Zimmerman: That’s the clubhouse…

    Dispatcher: That’s the clubhouse, do you know what the—he’s near the clubhouse right now?

    Zimmerman: Yeah, now he’s coming towards me.

    Dispatcher: OK.

    Zimmerman: He’s got his hand in his waistband. And he’s a black male. (Now that he has gotten closer he is certain as to the color of his skin also now knows for certain he is a male)

    Dispatcher: How old would you say he looks?

    Zimmerman: He’s got button on his shirt, late teens. (he also notices a new detail about his clothing)

    Dispatcher: Late teens ok.

    Zimmerman: Somethings wrong with him. Yup, he’s coming to check me out, he’s got something in his hands, I don’t know what his deal is. (He is concerned about what might be in his hands, TM is heading toward him.)

    Dispatcher: Just let me know if he does anything ok

    Zimmerman: How long until you get an officer over here? (He is frightened and wants the Police to get there)

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Once again, Jeff Pearlman has produced an exhaustively researched, elegantly written book that re-creates one of the most colorful and memorable teams of the modern era. No basketball fan's bookshelf will be complete without it.

— Seth Davis, author of Wooden: A Coach's Life