By the time you read this, I will be in Florida, usually renowned for its sun, astronauts and amusing human-sized mice, but now looked at as ground zero of American racism. Why it seems like only yesterday that people were warned against visiting the state because it was the car-jacking capital of the country, with a particular focus on foreign victims. Goodness knows it's probably the rape capitol of the country, given the number of drunken college students that descend upon it each year, though that's admittedly speculation on my part.
Florida is not the only state with a stand your ground law, but it is the one getting the most publicity mileage out of the fact that having one is a great way to up your state's murder numbers while keeping the crime rate from rising -- triple the murders in Florida since passing it. I've read plenty of articles warning you not to go to anyone's property to ask for directions in Florida -- they can shoot you and, in this climate, you might as well believe they will.
I have two teenage sons who will no doubt walk around the area of Florida we will be in, but I feel confident of their safety. For one, no hoodies -- in fact, one of my sons dresses in suits and ties most of the time, so I'd say he has an advantage over many other teenagers on the Florida sidewalks. The other advantage, of course, is that my sons are white.
The proclamations have died down since Obama was elected, but every now and then, I do hear mumbles that we live in a post-racist America. The killing of Trayvon Martin -- merely one incident among too many others, including the horrifying slaughter of Iranian housewife Shaima Alawadi in California, reminding that hate is not centered on one ethnicity -- shows we may just be proclaiming victory too soon.
And racism is revealed in lighter ways -- witness the reporting of the racist outcry by younger fans of The Hunger Games at the realization that that two popular characters I are black -- apparently obvious to anyone who paid attention to the book, but young racists of lesser reading retention couldn't ignore the fact in the film.
Regardless, I'm in my late 40s and racism is ingrained in the experience of my generation. My experience tells me it is more common among white people than most want to believe, or care to admit for political purposes.
I am about as Southern as it gets. Off the boat Southern. A good 300 years of heritage in Virginia and Georgia. I am of the first generation on either side of my family to move out of the south and stay out on purpose. There are plenty of reasons I did this, and one of them is certainly the institutional racism that infects the culture down there, so much so that racist notions were casually brought up by teachers in my high school to African American students during class time and no one, not even the African American students, batted an eye. If a teacher asks you "Why do black people like grapes so much?" in a Georgia class room, it's really not that unusual.
What was unusual -- at least to me -- was that when I moved up to New York City, I found that the racism was not only prevalent, but actually more hostile. People I knew casually spouted out racist dialogues that I tried my best to separate myself from. In a store I worked in during my college age years, it was standard practice that when a young, African American male walked into the store, you followed him to make sure he didn't steal. In the several years I worked in that store, I never saw one of those kids pull out a gun -- that honor would belong to the white guy who worked in the toy department, threatening an African American customer to get out of the store. Twenty-five years later and I'm still unclear as to whether the customer actually did anything.
Singer-songwriter Randy Newman wrote a song called "Rednecks," which, among other things, pointed out that when northerners boasted that African Americans were free up here, they were actually "free to be put in the cage" in places like Harlem, Roxbury, etc.
When I lived in New York City, between the Jones Beach murder and the riots in Crown Heights in Brooklyn -- the neighborhood I lived in -- I knew that racism was something the north needed to work on as well. I've heard racial slurs come out of the mouths of New Yorkers that I never heard come out of my racist grandmother in Georgia.
And it continues. Last November, in White Plains, N.Y., 68-year-old African American and former Marine Kenneth Chamberlain was Tasered and shot to death in his own home by police when his medical alert pendant went off. It was a false alarm and the pendant recorded the entire event, including Chamberlain pleading for his life with police.
So, northern states, try not to be smug when you look at Florida. Know that you, too, have the potential for such horrible acts -- and your reality has, again and again, proven that your citizens can sink just as low as anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line.