As I walked by myself down Elm Street last night I looked up and saw three large men in caps and baggy clothing turn the corner and head in my direction. I was neither fearful nor anxious as I kept walking towards them, yet as I came close enough to tell that the men were white—and thus probably students or football players—I guiltily perceived a hazy feeling of relief float through the back of my mind. The relief came from the understanding that white students generally do not bother other Yalies at night, and I was likely in no danger. Yet it was tinged with guilt because I like to think of myself as a racially conscious black man but a simple encounter on the streets of my home awakened stereotypes I’ve long tried to suppress.
Over the summer, however, I generally experienced the opposite phenomenon: when I walked alone at night, rather than feel even the vaguest feeling of relief when I saw a white person, I instead became acutely fearful. The difference between last night and the summer was contextual. Over the summer I led a bike trip across the country as part of a fundraiser for the Habitat for Humanity Chapter of Greater New Haven. I was the lone black person in a group of 27 riders, and most of the nine-week journey struck through the heart of Middle America: Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. We spent nights in churches like the First United Methodist Church of Douglas, Wyoming, and celebrated the Fourth of July in Oshkosh, Nebraska, a town of 700 people with almost no blacks. Some people in many of the towns we biked through likely never saw a black person before we came through—much less one in bright yellow spandex.
I had never spent much time in the rural Midwest or Great Plains, and my initial prejudices of gun-toting, bible-reading, pickup-truck driving Red Staters made me apprehensive. Crossing the Mississippi from Illinois to Iowa brought to my mind scenes from Deliverance; and, like Jon Voight, the last thing I wanted was to be held at gunpoint by a local farmer for his own bemusement. I felt the urge to cringe when I saw people drive by with gun racks on their back windows, and crossed the street when I saw a group of rowdy teenagers on the sidewalks of the small towns we stayed in. In the rare instance where I would see another black person on the street or in a supermarket, nodding or saying hello carried an extra significance for me than it did at home. The greeting contained a tacit acknowledgment that we both understood: if one of these white folks around us goes crazy, I’ve got your back.
I was forced to engage my fear of the Middle American for the first time in Western Illinois by the Iowa border. As one of the trip’s leaders, I was in charge of driving our 15-passenger support van and trailer occasionally, and on this rainy day as I was turning the van around, the gravel and mud on the side of the road gave way under the van’s weight and I wound up stuck in a six-foot deep ditch. I climbed out of the van and paced up the road, expecting to have to call AAA or a towing agency, when minutes later a man in a red pickup truck drove up and slowed down as he approached. The man was probably in his forties, dressed head-to-foot in army fatigues with long hair and an unkempt beard. I was by myself, in a yellow jacket and cargo shorts, holding my Treo cautiously as I prepared to run. The ominous banjo track from Deliverance played through my mind.
Rather than reach for his gun rack, however, the man rolled down his window and with a country drawl kindly asked if I needed a hand. He lived by the water tower a mile away, and he offered to get his larger pick-up truck from home that he could probably use to tow me out of the ditch. Soon after he left, several more cars stopped and asked to help, with many of the drivers pulling over and getting out of their cars. The scene looked like an impromptu roadside farmer’s market, with a dozen or so men and women huddled around my van and trailer in the Illinois cornfields. The rain turned to drizzle, and soon enough the man in the army fatigues came back and quickly towed the van out of its grave.
The point of this story is not to suggest that over the summer I discovered that racism was dead in Middle America. On the contrary, Iowa, for example, has one of the most disproportionate incarceration rates of blacks in the country, with one in thirteen black Iowans in prison—a rate 11 times higher than Iowa’s much larger white population. Nevertheless, if I hadn’t been forced to reassess my stereotypes towards Middle Americans through personal contact by meeting and talking to wonderfully generous and friendly people, I likely would continue to maintain an unnecessarily disrespectful attitude towards all of them. The same is true, albeit in reverse, at Yale: just as Deliverance gave me an unreasonable fear of white people in rural Illinois, the innumerable stories told to incoming freshman about how dangerous New Haven is only confirms unreasonable fears of all black people walking down Elm Street. Even Cultural Connections, which does a great job of facilitating discussions about race and ethnicity at Yale, had as its first meeting a Yale-sponsored lecture on campus security--a lecture which, when given to the entire freshman class two years ago, featured a man in a gorilla costume.
Yes, like many cities, New Haven has crime and other problems, just as racism continues to exist among whites in Middle America. But to do a better job of introducing freshmen to New Haven, Yale must change the metaphor it uses to describe Yale’s relationship with city into something that promotes establishing individual relationships between students and New Haveners. It is dangerous to think of Yale as a safe bubble floating in the middle of a violent ghetto because it allows students to disengage from the city and retain a negatively disrespectful attitude towards all of its residents. Yale is an intrinsic part of New Haven just as New Haven residents compose an essential part of Yale. And as an institution, Yale should try encouraging students to engage their city and its residents through advocacy, service, and personal contact among Yale students and staff as much as they warn them to secure their own belongings.