The memory is vivid. It is 1966.
Odessa Shannon and her husband, eager
to move from the District to Montgomery County for the schools, arrange to
tour a house for sale in Chevy Chase. As
they walk toward the front door, the real
estate agent, who is white, flees, rather
than show the house to the black couple.
“He saw us and he climbed out the
kitchen window,” Shannon says. “That was
our introduction to Montgomery County.”
Shannon moved to the Tamarack Triangle neighborhood in Silver Spring and
became one of Montgomery County’s
most revered civil rights advocates.
Today, she laughs as she tells that
absurd story. I laugh, too. But I’m laugh-
ing at myself because the depth and
tenacity of racism still has the power
to surprise me. There is a term for that: C L A U D
I was a child in the 1960s, living in a
white, Midwestern suburb. My mother
began my education in race, explaining that some grocery store chains transferred spoiling food to their inner-city
stores. That’s why African-Americans
sometimes shopped in our neighborhood
grocery store: to get a fair deal.
I was a young newspaper reporter in
Biloxi, Miss., in 1982, covering that city’s
first elected black official since Recon-
struction. Biloxi’s only black councilman
called one evening, sounding heart-
sick. He’d just left a Chamber of Com-
merce dinner where a white councilman
wore blackface and performed a vulgar
skit mocking women on welfare. That
shocked me, but not as much as what
happened next. My newspaper’s top edi-
tor tried to stop me from writing that
story, lest our readers get the impression
that his good friends at the Chamber of
Commerce were racists.
I was working in Norfolk, Va., in
1992, when the Los Angeles police officers who’d been caught on videotape
beating black construction worker Rodney King were acquitted of state criminal charges. Those events helped spark
deadly rioting in L.A. and prompted a
national discussion about racial divides.
At the time, I interviewed a gray-haired Virginia businessman with old-school manners: the picture of respectability. Still, he told me, as a black man,
he made sure to keep his hands on the
steering wheel whenever a police officer
pulled him over for a traffic stop. I was
so surprised I thought I’d never forget
that conversation. But I hadn’t thought
of it for years, not until this August.
I was transfixed by the televised spectacle in Ferguson, Mo., where white
police officers tear-gassed black protesters and pointed military-style automatic
weapons at them as if they were taking
Fallujah. The trigger for the protests was
familiar: a white police officer had shot
an unarmed black teenager. The aftermath was revelatory. It turned out that
relations between Ferguson police and
minorities were frayed long before the
shooting. Ferguson, where elected officials are white, filled municipal coffers by ticketing and fining its predominately black population, often for minor
offenses such as playing music too loud
in the car. People who couldn’t afford to
pay were arrested and jailed as if in some
Dickensian debtors’ prison. Arrests triggered downward spirals—missed work,
missed rent, eviction, lost jobs.
Following the story from the comfort
and security of my Bethesda home, Ferguson felt like a world away. But it isn’t.
In September, the federal Equal
Employment Opportunity Commission
Close to Home
The Bethesda area may have more in common
with Ferguson, Mo., than we’d like to think