Somerville resident Henry Parker’s first experience with racism wasn’t in South Carolina, Arkansas, or Mississippi, but in Davis Square.
In the early 60s, an employee at Woolworth’s refused to wait on him and his mother, Parker told the Journal after the Oct. 5 kickoff to a series of city-hosted conversations on race and racism at Clarendon Hill Presbyterian Church.
His mother complained to the manager and the employee was gone the next day, Parker said — but the memory was not.
“Racism changes form, but never substance. So a lot of times it’s hard to identify,” Parker said. “Some people have more radar for it. I have more radar for it than my friends, so they say, ‘You’re just paranoid.’ I say, ‘I’m not paranoid enough!’”
Parker isn’t alone. Nine times out of 10 when she’s shopping at Bloomingdales, Somerville Disabilities Coordinator and conversation moderator Betsy Allen told the crowd of about 40, a white woman will ask her for help. At Whole Foods, the server behind the deli counter will appear not to see her waiting, but when a white person comes up, the server “wakes up,” Allen said.
“No one’s gonna call me that word [referring to a racial slur] in this day and age unless they’re crazy, but there are other personal indignities that black people put up with,” Allen said.
When people look at her son, Allen said, they see a black teenager who must be in the neighborhood to rob someone.
“When my kids go around, they are black to people. They don’t care they go to fancy schools, that they work hard, that they were raised by two parents, that they are polite and respectful,” Allen said. “They just see black.”
Allen added, “I don’t want my kid shot down because he’s black.”
Tales of discrimination
Resident Ken Thomas described a situation in which he felt unfairly treated by an employer for not having access to a personal computer and for being a black father.
“Black people are held in a state of acute terrorism in America,” Thomas said. He added, “I see a lot of young black men who are alienated, frightened, terrorized.”
Although he himself has reached a high level of learning, Thomas said, he has never seen a black man on the MIT campus either witnessing or giving a Ph.D defense.
Resident Laurie Fitz said she didn’t always believe her husband when he related examples of being followed in a store or treated differently based on race. But that changed the day she saw an older woman step into the street in front of a moving car to avoid a young black man coming toward her on the sidewalk, Fitz said.
“It crystallized in my mind that I’ve been making excuses about what I could have been observing more acutely,” Fitz said. “We have to recognize our own perceptions and how strong they can be.”
Fitz now considers this an important conversation to have, she said.
“I think systemic racism is the greatest threat to this country. I’m tired of mostly white people not getting it,” Fitz said. “I want to know how to move the conversation.”
Resident Anne Ryan offered only one reason for coming.
“I have found living in the city to be devastating,” Ryan said.
Asked to explain this remark after the meeting, Ryan declined. However, during the part of the meeting dedicated to sharing personal experiences, Ryan did offer one telling detail.
“I live outside Union Square and it is regularly inundated with events that are not at all inclusive,” Ryan said.
Resident Lee Kilpatrick jumped on this observation, noting that a large white population comes to certain Union Square events, while others, such as a recent hip-hop festival, have smaller turnouts.
“They’re intended for anyone, but they do seem very one way or the other,” Kilpatrick said. “They’re very segregated almost.”
Kilpatrick, who is associated with the Washington Street Gallery and Studio Building, told to the Journal that while Boston and Cambridge art councils are more diverse, Somerville’s is all white.
One tense moment occurred when church member Richard Hughes suggested Allen’s experiences at Bloomingdales and Whole Foods might not have been based on her race.
Allen said nine out of 10 times is too high a rate for coincidence, and firmly stated that the onus to address this discrimination is not on her, but on the person perpetrating it.
Resident Joe Baker said everyone needs to work together on not escalating conflict based on race.
“We’re all constantly ratcheting up the level of tension,” Baker said. “It’s incumbent on the majority of white society to try to understand the tension of the black community and why this hair trigger effect, and try to work to reduce that level of tension.”
Group members offered a variety of thoughts and recommendations regarding moving race relations forward, including gathering more data on Somerville’ changing demographics and languages spoken in the schools; looking closely at housing and its role in the diversity of the community; creating opportunities for mentorship for black youths and others; working with nearby Kendall Square companies to create financial investment opportunities and programs for youths in Somerville; and exploring an anti-racism curriculum for Somerville schools.
Ryan urged identifying and protecting Somerville’s few inclusive places, including the East Somerville Library, where she said people of different races have learned to get along by necessity because the space is so small.
Resident Gary Trujillo drew a connection from the Black Lives Matter movement to the importance of protecting the diversity of Union Square as the Green Line Extension project proceeds.
Parker said he is interested in hearing more from Somerville’s Brazilian and Haitian communities. He told the Journal that although Somerville is much more diverse than when he was growing up — he was one of only three black students graduating in a class of 500 from Somerville High School — the city’s minority groups are strangely silent.
But conversations such as this one are a good first step, he said.
“To see a discussion like this in Somerville is mind-boggling,” he said. “I commend the mayor and the city for doing what they’re doing. They don’t want another Ferguson to happen, because it could very well happen here.”
The remaining conversations about race will be held at the following locations:
Wed, Oct. 14, 6-8 p.m., Greater Works Church of God, 12 Marshall St.
Tue., Oct. 20, 12:30-2:30 p.m., at La Cantina, 247 Washington St.
Thur., Oct. 22, 10 a.m.-12 p.m., at Connexion, 149 Broadway
Mon., Oct. 26, 6-8 p.m., at Arts at the Armory, 191 Highland Ave.
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