For a good period of years, I spent more time working in various parts of the United States than I did within Canada. On average I would spend perhaps 40 days in one area and my locations ranged from the Texas/Mexico border to upstate New York. It was a blue collar role so I wasn’t sequestered in high end urban hotels. It gave me time to observe and learn and it gave me a unique perspective on some issues. I don’t have a lot of answers to what is a huge and entrenched problem within the United States. That nation is a powder keg of racial tension and periodic race riots prove that out.
I am a typical Canadian. I have had it good. My family was middle class and I am not part of a visible minority. I have over the course of my life seen racism in Canada but not on the level or degree of what I observed when I began working south of the border.
I love the United States and the American people. I wouldn’t have spent years working down there if this wasn’t the case. They are our closest neighbors and if we are to be compared to any other nation, we are without question more like Americans than any other nation. I did not see a hotbed of screaming, tiki-torch waving white supremacists while I was down there. Those extremists exist but they are in a tiny minority. It was the unspoken and less immediately apparent racial divisions that distressed me the most.
On my first job in Texas I really got to see the division first hand. I arrived in a South Texas town of perhaps 12,000 people and went to a gas station to fill up before seeking my motel. It was when I was standing in line to pay for my fuel when I realized that I was the only white person at the station. Gas stations are social hangouts down there where folks have a beer and play instant lottery tickets. From the people in line, to the folks behind the counter to the folks hanging out in the parking lot, they were all black. Nobody hassled me or anything like that though I did garner some sidelong glances.
My first assumption was that this town I was in was a predominantly black community. I was wrong. I was just in the black part of town.
I learned over the next few days that the town was essentially divided into four parts. There was the black part, the Mexican part, the white part and the downtown which was the one zone aside from Wal Mart where everybody was prone to mixing. The residential areas, convenience stores, restaurants, gas stations etc. were all divided by invisible lines which folks instinctively tended not to cross. The non-white parts of town were invariably the ones most evidently in the low income bracket.
The casual racism really floored me. I remember meeting with a local oil company operator out there to discuss where some of their pipelines were and he offered me some friendly advice on local eateries. He recommended a barbeque place but made sure to add “Its a nigger place, but its still the best barbeque in town.”. It wasn’t simply the word which staggered me though admittedly in my world I don’t hear it used often. It was the way he simply put it. He wasn’t trying to offend me or get a reaction. He wasn’t spitting it out in hate. It was a simple word in his lexicon which he didn’t think twice about using in what he felt was a friendly conversation with a visitor to town. He didn’t think it odd in any way and likely didn’t even realize he used it. This was a well educated, middle-class man. Not a backwater redneck as some would assume.
The other thing which was striking was how divided things were by race, even in smaller communities. In Canada we certainly have some parts of cities which are divided predominantly by ethnic communities but this tends to only be in major cities and the division and tension is not nearly as bad. Communities under a few hundred thousand don’t have it yet in many American communities of only a few thousand, the division is real and evident.
Much of the attitude is more of a “We don’t have a problem with them as long as they stick to their own end of town.” and that attitude springs from folks of all races. It is an consequence of the divisions.
This issue is far from just being a Southern one.
I spent months in Williamsport Pennsylvania. It is a city of less than 30,000 in Northern PA which is best known for holding the little league world series of baseball.
If you travel Northwest of the city center, you enter a district loaded with some of the most impressive mansions I have ever seen in my life. In going just a few short blocks South of that district of mansions, you enter a part of town which looks like something from a dystopian movie. The houses and buildings are in wretched condition while broken down cars choke the streets. I drove down one alley where I thought I saw poplar fluff blowing up behind my truck. On stopping and having it look, it turned out to be countless, used little ziplock bags. The crack and meth use is an outright epidemic and again, it was all just blocks from a district full of millionaires. That was the black district. The line is invisible but it is real.
On that job in Williamsport, we had to rent rooms and houses in order to put up our crews. The shale oil boom was in full tilt and motel rooms were impossible to find. I had a young black fellow who came by the house I was residing in on a few occasions who was seeking a job. Folks in the neighborhood knew the home was being rented as a field office.
I needed a laborer for bush clearing and I hired him. It seemed perfect since we wouldn’t have to pay for housing and he seemed like a good ambitious young man who could do a good job.
The first problem I encountered was from my own crews. These guys were predominantly from the Corning, New York area and they made it quite clear that they were not impressed with the “speck of pepper in the salt shaker” as they put it. I was infuriated and laid down the law. It was made clear that any of them who had a problem with the hire were welcome to go back to New York. It again was an example of the division that existed while I didn’t even realize it until I tried to mix races on the crew.
Well, wouldn’t you know it but the guy I hired turned out to be rather lazy and talked a better game than he played. That had nothing to do with race. I just made a bad judgement. Either way, this fellow quit mid-day on me after a couple weeks on the job. He called and asked to be picked up from the field. I was rather pissed off and told him to finish out the day at least. He refused to work and I refused to come and get him. I told him I would be out at 5 to get him when the rest of the crews were done.
Later that afternoon I got a phone call from a Sheriff’s department saying they had picked up a fellow loitering who had claimed to work for me. My former employee had decided to walk out to a rural road to sit around and wait to be picked up. Somebody local had spotted him sitting there and had called the cops. Not only did the cops come out, they detained him until it could be confirmed that he wasn’t up to anything bad.
It is not an imagined or exaggerated thing folks. It is utterly foreign to us Canadians, but black people down there put up with shit that we can’t even imagine. A black person can’t even sit on a country road without arousing suspicion and the police response was to treat him as being guilty until proven innocent. His crime was only in being lazy. The police wouldn’t let him out of their car until I arrived. They didn’t want further calls if he was sitting unattended until I got there.
Had that been a white crew member, people would have stopped to ask if he was OK or needed a ride. Since it was a black fellow, the cops were called.
I have plenty more observances and anecdotes but I think I have rambled enough to make my point here.
Slavery is gone and the Jim Crow laws are a part of history. The racial division is as bad as ever though and it is more of a matter of societal and cultural attitude than it is legislative. Unfortunately, entrenched attitudes are far more difficult to change than law are.
The vast majority of Americans are not frothing racists. Most of the racism which is occurring is unconscious and being practiced by people who don’t even know they are doing it.
Now try to put yourselves into the shoes of a marginalized American black person growing up in one of those segregated communities. Imagine constantly being passed up for promotions due to your race after being passed on for many jobs in the first place. Imagine being pulled over for “random” checks because you are driving a late model vehicle. Imagine people crossing the road rather than passing you on a sidewalk. Imagine not being able to simply sit on a country road without the police being called.
I don’t know what any of that feels like but I can understand how it would foster the rage and frustration which has fed the rioting in Minneapolis this week, St. Louis the other year or Los Angeles decades ago.
How impotent it must feel to watch a video and to see a man murdered by police while the authorities initially react by putting the murderous cops on paid leave.
It took days of rioting before Derek Chauvin was finally arrested. Would he have ever been charged had their not been riots? Would he have been charged faster if the many he killed was not white? Its hard to answer those questions but it helps rationalize the rioting.
I know that there are some Antifa extremists and other assorted groups with their own causes taking part in the Minneapolis riots. Let’s not pretend that the majority of the riots are being conducted by disenfranchised and enraged black people though.
I don’t have the answers here. I really wish I did.
I just want to share some insights into part what is feeding all this division, violence and hate. I think that a lot of Americans who are living within the issue actually can’t see it and a lot of Canadians have never actually spent enough time in the right areas to see it. We are all horrified and confused.
As I said at the start of this ramble though, the United States is one big powder keg. We are going to see a lot more unrest and violence over the coming years due to their racial divisions. I just hope I could lend a little experience to help others understand why it is so.