Nov 1, 2018 in NEWS

Beyond the Bus

Rosa Parks Took a Stand, but Mourners Know Prejudice Still Is Deep-Seated

By Tamara Jones and Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, November 1, 2018; C01

Before he enters a crosswalk outside his downtown law office, Johnnie Bond scans the cars stopped before him. Is there a white woman alone? Will he hear it this time?


Such a tiny sound.


Like a pistol cocking.


The sound of a car door locking when a black man approaches.

Just as it was with Rosa Parks and the bus seat she refused to yield to a white man, those who struggle with racism or even the perception of it today describe a soul-weariness. Theirs is a battle fatigue from a more subtle psychological warfare, a covert campaign unfolding in crosswalks and fine restaurants, in wedding boutiques, in supermarkets.

They cite the everyday indignities of a hand unshaken, a customer unacknowledged, a child uninvited. They analyze the ambiguous moments that come and go as quickly as an elevator door closing in their faces. They patrol the unexplored border zone between oversight and insult, between misunderstanding and message.

Half a century after desegregation, subtle racism nags "like a chronic pain, like a backache. After awhile, you get used to it, but still," says Pat Spearman, a 50-year-old Methodist minister. In town from Las Vegas on a business trip, she spends Sunday night in line outside the Capitol Rotunda, waiting to pay respects to the woman whose defiance against the legally enforced racism that day in Alabama made her the mother of the civil rights movement.

Throughout the day, the mourners reflect on what has changed and what hasn't.

"A lot of people still think the way they did back then. It's a long struggle, a long struggle," says Jonathan Cooper, a 43-year-old General Dynamics program manager from Centreville.

"From executive offices, to equality in position and pay, to sports ownership, we can't be satisfied with just being able to vote and to sit where we want to on the bus," he adds. He wants his 2-year-old daughter, dressed against the autumn chill in a peppermint pink snowsuit, to know her parents brought her to see Rosa Parks. That her own future hinges on the history she cannot yet comprehend.

"Now," says her father, "we've got to be focused on being totally equal."

Lauren Green waits, too. The 34-year-old District television producer starts to say something about everyday racism being "subtle, hard to gauge," but the friend standing with her jumps in with a laugh.

"Subtle for you, maybe, because you're a black woman, not a black man," he scoffs. Armand Hill is 28, two weeks away from law school graduation. He's used to women clutching their purses tighter, or white strangers walking faster, when they see a tall young black man behind them. "Click," he says when asked about crosswalks.

Hill usually doesn't bother addressing the offensive behavior. If someone is that ignorant, he feels, "it's not my job, not my obligation, to educate you."

"I have a different point of view," Green politely argues. "In some cases, if people come to me from a place of naivete, or ignorance, I'm willing to give them a little leeway." Certain things can set her off, she allows. "Random hair-touching!" Casual acquaintances, even co-workers, feel somehow entitled to grasp one of Green's ringlets and offer commentary, "like, 'Oh, it's soft!' "

Being treated like someone's anthropology field study gets on Hill's nerves, too. "Stop telling me I speak so well!" he longs to shout at all the white people who thought they were paying him a compliment.

"Oh, yes! That one!" Green agrees. "Of course I can speak. What am I, a monkey?"

How, or even whether, to respond to a racial affront is a decision that often has to be made in an instant. Karlyn Dixon, a 42-year-old casino worker from Delaware, was out shopping with three white girlfriends in Sterling when a car with black men inside drove slowly past them in the mall parking lot.

"Oh, they could've just snatched us!" Dixon remembers one of her white friends blurting out. Dixon laughs at her own initial response, the assumption she made that "us" did not include her. "I'm thinking, 'What, am I not worthy of being snatched?' " The men were driving slowly, it seemed obvious to her, "because we're crossing the street and they're trying not to hit us." The incident nagged at her, but she decided not to say anything to her friend.

"I just chalked it up to her being goofy."

Letting it slide, rising above it, even pretending nothing really happened is a common response, clinical psychologist William Byrd finds, and a potentially dangerous one. "Like bricks on your shoulder, you can only bear so much and one day you'll explode," he cautions.

When he was attending a black-tie affair recently, Byrd, in his tuxedo, was approached in the men's room by a white man who "had decided I must be in charge of the towels. I could've gotten angry, cursed the person out. Or I could have ignored it. Or I could do something to make them reflect. . . . So I reintroduced myself, 'Hi, I'm Dr. Byrd.' " He considered the embarrassed "oops" a lesson learned.

Sherell Daniels wishes she hadn't bothered.

"I was in Whole Foods in Tenleytown and this older man, white, thought I bumped into his cart, but I didn't," she recalls. The man kept loudly and sarcastically saying 'Excuse me,' Daniels says, and she ignored him. Standing at the store's customer service desk minutes later, she saw the same shopper approach.

"Oh, you were rushing to cash your welfare benefits," she heard him say loudly.

Daniels fought back her first instinct, to bombard him with the list of her accomplishments, tell him she was a lawyer, an Ivy League graduate. Instead, she silently seethed. Outside the store, she waited for the old man to emerge.

"Don't you ever speak to me that way again!" she shouted. "My ancestors are why you're here!"

When she turned to walk home, she saw the man following her. Anger turned to uneasiness, and she went to get the store security guard. The man walked away.

"Actually, I regretted saying something," she says. She believes that people who hurt others do so because they're wounded themselves. "I know nothing about his life experience," Daniels says of the old man. "You can't change people's hearts. It's a heart condition." In the end, "I was just wasting my breath, wasting my time."

Jack Dovidio is a University of Connecticut social psychologist who has studied race relations for 30 years, focusing on subtle racism.

In the post-civil rights era, Dovidio says, racism shifted from the sanctioned cruelties of segregation to something more complicated.

"It's like a virus that mutated into a new form, one more difficult to recognize and therefore more difficult to combat," Dovidio says in a telephone interview. Even white people who consider themselves vehemently anti-racist are surprised to learn that they nod more frequently at other whites than blacks during conversation, for example, Dovidio says.

"Black people can feel it like you know a dog's going to bite you," civil rights attorney Donald Temple says of the everyday indignities. "The energy level changes, you feel that coldness." A woman enjoying an afternoon of shopping feels her blood pressure rise as salesclerks hover too closely, or security guards wait outside a restroom door. One client, Temple says, was surrounded by police as he left a bridal shop because some employee found him inexplicably "suspicious." He had just selected a gown for his Russian fiancee, Temple says, and had the receipt for the dress deposit in his pocket.

Although she's had racist slurs shouted at her in front of her young daughter, most of the racism Tamara Newman encounters "is so covert and hidden."

"It'll eat away at you," says the 31-year-old senior project manager for Sprint-Nextel.

Time and again, Newman says, she has been out to dinner with a couple of her sisters or a few black female friends, only to have a pleasant evening end bitterly when the bill comes with the gratuity already added. She makes a point of summoning the manager when it happens. "Do you think I'm incapable of calculating 20 percent or perhaps more for excellent service?" she will ask.

Like Rosa Parks, she's tired of it, and tired of being tired.

"I was having a conversation with a friend and just saying we need another Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks," Newman says.

Shirley Smith, a 55-year-old junior high teacher in Temple Hills, wonders what ordinary man or woman today would muster the strength to renew the fight for dignity that Parks inspired.

"She was willing to go to jail for the cause. Really, honestly, how many of us are willing to go to jail to make a statement these days?" she asks.

In the line, 47-year-old Donna Horton struggles to explain to her 8-year-old daughter, Mary, why Parks was arrested.

"Because her bus seat was reserved for white people," Horton says as they leave the Rotunda.

"But why?" the little girl wants to know.

"Because. They didn't want people like us in those seats."

"But why?"

Frustration gives way to revelation, and in the flood of tears she was choking back the whole time she circled Parks's closed casket, Horton finds hope. "Isn't it wonderful that she can't imagine this?" she says. "Isn't it wonderful she'll never live through this? That she can't even understand it happening?"

Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.

� 2018 The Washington Post Company