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What I learned about race relations from the yard guy

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I've got a "yard guy." Six years ago, my tendency for procrastination had rendered my front lawn indistinguishable from a nature preserve. George was on his way to another house, and knocked on my door to ask if I'd like him to cut my grass. I didn't know him from Adam, but his asking price was more than fair, and I was embarrassed enough to pay, just to get it done. He did a great job, and I asked him to come back in a couple of weeks. Since then, he's been Mr. Reliable. We barely bother to schedule anymore. He shows up when the yard needs work, does the work, and tells me how much to pay him. During lean times, he cut me a discount. When his tools were stolen, I slipped him a couple of extra $20s. We've got a good relationship.

Earlier today, I heard a bit of a commotion on the side of my house. I went to the window, and there was George, carrying my extension ladder back to the work shed. He hung it in its place, and walked to the front yard. Normally, I wouldn't be home at this time on a Wednesday, and in this instance, we'd actually scheduled for him to be here next Monday, so I stepped outside to see what was up.

George was a little flustered, and explained that he didn't think I was home, so he didn't knock. He'd been working two doors down, and needed a ladder to remove a fallen limb from a client's roof. Since it would have taken him an hour to go home to get his, he'd just borrowed mine for a few minutes, and then returned it. I assured him it was totally fine. He'd known I'd be okay with him borrowing my ladder, so he borrowed it. I thanked him for his hard work, and said, "See you Monday."

This story is not all that remarkable, and actually, if told in a certain context, would make us feel nostalgic for the Good Ol' Days when neighbors knew they could trust each other, and people didn't bother to lock their tool sheds. The thing is, he's not my "neighbor" in everyone's eyes. George is black, and I'm white, and I live in a white neighborhood. Black man walking out of a white man's yard with the white man's ladder? People have been shot for a lot less.

That last sentence wasn't an exaggeration, sadly. People have been shot for a lot less, and recently. We live in a country where people get shot for playing music too loud or walking a dog in the wrong yard. That's just the reality. But this isn't a piece about gun violence. This is a piece about race. I have 7 neighbors whose property is essentially next to mine. I know most of them by face, but I couldn't swear to all their names. We're all busy folks, and we keep to ourselves. We're all white, of course. And here's the thing: if any one of my neighbors, who I don't really know very well, were to be seen taking my ladder, the first assumption would be that they had permission. Actually, let's go a step further. Most of my immediate neighbors are in the same boat as me. They don't know for sure who lives or visits all of the houses around here. If any decent looking white person had been seen taking my ladder, nobody'd have thought a thing about it.

George is an average dude. I've never asked, but I'd guess he's about 45. He's got a couple of kids who are mostly grown and out of the house. He's divorced, and doesn't have a lot of time to date because he works long hours. He's an entrepreneur. When the economy tanked and he lost his job, he took his lawn mower and his tools and went door to door asking for work. He charged a fair price for good work, and over the years, he built up a clientele so large he had to bring in new employees. A few months ago, he bought a new truck and trailer so he can bring all his tools to each job. He's not rich, but he's making it. It's an all-American story, by most standards.

The thing is, he's not the standard color for this story. He and I don't talk much about race relations, but I see them play out. When he brought his cousin to help with my yard, he spent a good ten minutes giving me details and background on the man, trying to reassure me that he was okay. (It was unnecessary, and I told him as much, but he insisted on telling me the whole story.) For the first six months or so, he always had me do a walk-around when he was done, and made a point to show me my tool-shed, so I could see nothing was gone. To this day, he stands a little farther from the door than a white person would when I come to pay him. These are little things, but they illustrate something much bigger.

George has to act differently than a white person doing the same job. He's got to go to extra lengths to demonstrate his trustworthiness, and he always has to be aware that as a black person in white neighborhoods, he's at serious risk. If something ever goes missing, he's going to be one of the first suspects. He's got to worry about neighbors with guns mistaking him for a thief. He's had the police called on him several times while doing nothing more than his job.

All these observations struck me really hard when I was thinking about "The Ladder Incident." George did the right thing. He's got clients lined up all day, and the extra hour to get his ladder would have meant he'd have to cancel somebody's appointment. Since he's black, he gets cut less slack then a white person if he cancels. He could have not cleared the fallen limb from his client's roof, but he's black, so he's got a low threshold for being perceived as "lazy." He could have left a note saying he'd come back tomorrow to get it with his own ladder, but again... he's got clients tomorrow. Clearing the limb was the right thing to do. Any self-respecting yard guy who sees a fallen limb on the roof should get the limb. So George needed the ladder. He knows me, and I know him, and he borrowed my ladder.

If I'd have been in his position, I'd have borrowed the neighbor's ladder, too. And most likely, nobody'd have thought a thing about it. For George, it was a much bigger decision. And that's the key to how racism perpetuates racism. I suspect George's choice to borrow my ladder was out of the box. I suspect most black yard guys wouldn't dare borrow a ladder from a white guy's house, and would have been completely justified in not doing so, due to the risk of being arrested or even shot. And that's another way of saying most black yard guys wouldn't have gotten the limb off the roof. And that's another way of saying black yard guys tend not to work as hard as white yard guys. Get it?

Racism plays out in a thousand subtle ways when whites and blacks interact, and one of the most damaging ways is that many -- probably most -- black people do not take unnecessary risks around white people. They know they're the first suspects when something bad happens, so they avoid being in situations where they could be suspected of wrongdoing around whites.

When I first spoke of "The Ladder Incident," my friend Robin related her own story of a very similar situation:

When my mother was nearing the time where she couldn't be left alone, she locked herself outside in the early morning hours. Her neighbor, a younger black man, stated he was a bit concerned as he went over her fence to go through the back yard and open the garage door to let her in. He was concerned someone would call the police because he was coming out of an old white lady's garage in the early morning.

This is the way it works. Many black people are genuinely afraid to do something nice for white people. While we can applaud both George the Yard Guy and the kind next-door neighbor of my friend's mom, we must also face the ugly truth about racism. White people simply do not get to talk about the "character" of black people when we are creating our own self-fulfilling reality. We cannot begin to calculate how many acts of kindness have not been done, not because of the bad character of a black person, but the racist, gun-crazy suspicion harbored by so many white people. When you make it a bad idea for someone else to be nice to you, you don't get to be mad when they're not nice to you.

If it stopped there, it would be pretty bad, but there's actually a double-whammy effect. Every once in a while, someone takes the time to try to explain this, and the unfortunately predictable response from white people makes it worse. After hearing about the Lawn Guy and the Next Door Neighbor, a Republican acquaintance, James, had this to say:

You just told a nice real-life story about race relations, then conjured a hypothetical parallel situation in Florida in which you imagine he'd have been shot, then declared we have a problem in America. Yes. People imagining racism and judging Florida whites/Hispanics and Southerners as racist when they're not.

Straight up, he didn't believe what I was saying. This much is obvious, but it exposes a nasty catch-22. Even having been told of a black person who said it directly, he's unconvinced. Unfortunately, the only way we can usually measure attitudes is to ask. If I were to ask 100 black people if they are sometimes afraid to be nice to white people, and 80 of them said yes, would the racists believe the data? We know the answer. They would not. This is the awful circle of racism. It is an attitude that translates to actions. To discover racism, we must ask people about their attitudes. Except, when we already have a negative attitude toward one group, we simply don't believe them, or make up excuses to explain away the racism. We are racist in our acceptance of people's attitudes toward race. Ask white people, and they'll say racism isn't a problem, and we believe them. Ask black people, they'll say it's a big problem, and we don't believe them, even though they are far more qualified to judge the situation than we are.

Do we imagine that in America, black people do not see white people do this? Of course they see. And what is the most logical response when you keep telling someone something, and they won't listen? The answer is to stop trying, and just stay away. The answer is to stop trying to build bridges and improve the situation. And then, of course, you get blamed for being racist yourself because you don't associate with white people. And on and on it goes, with each step in the cycle reinforcing what we already believed to begin with.

The fact is, racism keeps us from being good to each other. It keeps us from trusting one another. Racism is not dead, and I'm afraid it's not dying nearly as fast as it should. When good-hearted people are afraid to do acts of kindness because of the color of their skin, we've got a long, long way to go.

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