Its 2001, but racism alive for many
By JOUNICE L. NEALY and ADAM C. SMITH
© Copyrighted, St. Petersburg Times, February 18, 2001
"You go into the store, and you're standing at the counter waiting and waiting to be helped. Somebody comes up behind you who's a different race, and immediately they get, "Can I help you?' I get so angry, sometimes I just leave," she said.
It's an episode that plays like reruns in the lives of many African-Americans in Florida. Racism is a part of their everyday lives:
"Perception might as well be reality," said Darryl Rouson, president of the St. Petersburg Branch of the NAACP. With instant access to information about events such as the Rodney King beating, the killing of Amadou Diallo in New York and other racially charged episodes, people see those and think it must be happening here too, but it just isn't being publicized, Rouson said.
Because of the perceptions, African-American parents tell their children that when they are stopped by police, they need to just survive the situation. Race becomes a factor in the way that grades are decided in classrooms. Being in a place where African-Americans are not usually seen, some say they will get a curious look or a comment.
Kerilynn Kelly-Moss, a 32-year-old secretarial company owner from Titusville, says racism becomes a part of your life if you are black. "You grow up with it," she said.
Randy Bailey, an occupational therapist who lives in Hollywood, remembers all too vividly the time he had to fight for a grade from a white English professor. He never got anything lower than a B on his work, but she gave him a C+
in the course.
"Fortunately for me, I kept all my papers," said Bailey, 32. After the professor refused to budge, he took it to the department chairman and showed proof that he deserved a better grade. He got a call that evening from his professor, an apology and a B+.
"I knew she did not like me based on . . . what I perceive to be my skin complexion," Bailey said.
The poll results don't surprise Gov. Jeb Bush.
"Is there racism and discrimination in our state? Absolutely," he said in an interview. "Have we made progress? Yes."
Ron Walters, director of the African-American Leadership Program at the James MacGregor Burns Academy of Leadership at the University of Maryland, says that while racism does exist, he cautions that these are people's feelings -- their perceptions but not necessarily reality.
"You can't judge the extent of racism by what people say. You have to be conscious of the fact that you're dealing with a public opinion poll," Walters said in an interview.
So, these are "purely perceptions and feelings and you have to keep that up front," Walters said.
On the other hand, he said: "Many are the subject of racist treatment who absolutely know nothing about it."
For example, a clerk at the bank might smile at you, but race code your check. Or a financial institution might graciously accept your loan application and turn around and race code it, too.
Rouson added that he's not as cynical about race relations as the poll numbers. "It's easier today to cause pain by yelling racism," he said. "It's harder to just understand the lesson in events as opposed to blaming racism because you are angry."
But for many black Floridians, the perceptions are reality. And there is no escaping the scarring images of racism that shape their opinion about race relations.
The memories of a friend's arrest as a teenager are still fresh for Rodney Henderson.
One morning, Henderson's friend walked out of his Orlando home and was handcuffed and booked into jail. Police said "he fit the profile of a suspect," said Henderson, vice president of the Metropolitan Orlando Urban League. The charges were later dropped, he said.
It is infuriating, Henderson said, but it has become a way of life. Most African-Americans in the state believe these encounters happen frequently in their communities, although only 14 percent say they personally have been stopped by an officer because of race within the last two years.
"You just try to survive the situation or the event at that point," said Henderson, 34.
Survival is often part of the instructions that parents give their children, especially men, Walters says.
"It's part of the experience," Walters said. "Getting stopped by the police, it's not a big deal. It's just a part of everyday life."
Wanda Pleasant -- whose family is the only black one in their Largo neighborhood and whose children were often the only or one of few black students in school -- feels that race relations are very good in her personal world.
When she and her family moved to Largo from Baltimore about nine years ago, almost everyone they knew was white. But Mrs. Pleasant's network in Florida is tight-knit, although they live in a county that is substantially less diverse than Baltimore.
Still, there are prickly reminders of disparaging treatment.
Mrs. Pleasant, 40, remembers being in a shoe store recently and "not one single solitary salesman asked me, "Can I help you?' " She was the only black shopper in the store and resorted to asking the cashier for help.
"It's not very overt, but it's there," Mrs. Pleasant said.
Bailey, the occupational therapist from Hollywood who once had to fight for a higher grade, has used the bitter doses of discrimination as an incentive.
"I persevere because I understand how discrimination began. It's a form of fear. . . . When I look at it in that respect, I try to educate and not retaliate, then I begin to find that person was just operating out of ignorance," Bailey said. "I've been able to overcome those types of things."
When Bailey was in a five-year plumbing apprenticeship, he was stifled when it came to commercial plumbing.
"I was not allowed to fit pipes properly," Bailey said. "They didn't allow me to learn on the job like other apprentices. So they kept me in the trailer." He swept floors and passed out equipment.
It was enough to make him want to quit, but he insisted on finishing the program.
In the poll, 22 percent said they had been discriminated against by an employer in the past two years.
"It's clear that workplace discrimination is down," said pollster Rob Schroth, who conducted the poll for the Times. "But the casual encounters in shopping situations have a long way to go."
In Jacksonville, Mary Graham, 50, and her adult daughter went to a major department store a few months ago to return a dress she had received as a gift. They felt the hostility of a sales clerk almost immediately. First, the woman said the store didn't carry such a dress. Mrs. Graham's daughter pointed to a rack of those dresses nearby. The woman then asked how she could be sure the dress hadn't been stolen.
"I was so outraged I reported them to their corporate offices," said Mrs. Graham, her voice rising in anger as she recounted the incident.
It was not an isolated case for Mrs. Graham, but she says she never gets used to it. The snap judgments people make based on skin color can be astounding.
"I was in shopping in Sam's not long ago, and I was standing in the aisle looking at something. I see this woman coming down the aisle, and she looks at me and pulls her hand bag up tight against her side," Mrs. Graham said. "I'm thinking, "Lady, I'm not going steal from you. I probably have more money in my bag than you do.' It's just sad. If you're that scared of African-Americans, why do you even go out?
"Florida has a long way to go," Mrs. Graham said, "a long way."
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