This weekend I watched The Help with my mother (excellent movie, highly recommended) and afterwards got in a discussion of what it must have felt like to live during a time when systematized discrimination against a specific race or group of people was not only tolerated, but actively enforced as the status quo. We agreed that the US really hasn’t come as far as we’d like to believe, and we talked quite a bit about the instances of overt and more pervasive, institutionalized, or subtler forms of racism we’ve both seen.
“I’m so glad I live in New York,” I said, “it feels like we’re always a few decades ahead of the rest of the country, in terms of respecting each other and understanding how people should get along.” Smugly I added, “it feels good to be on the right side of history.”
Now I am choking on the irony, as I must completely eat my words.
© Associated Press, Segregation of Buses in Atlanta, The Freedom Mosaic
I lugged a suitcase back from New Jersey with me today, so I decided to take the bus home from the ferry. Our ferry was slightly delayed by the high winds and reduced visibility of an impending thunderstorm. A number of passengers were rushing up the ramps to catch buses, and I saw the driver of the S42 close the doors, then reopen them to let two white women and then myself on board. The driver slammed the doors shut the moment my suitcase had cleared the bottom step, and she accelerated so suddenly away from the curb that I nearly fell over as I inserted my MetroCard. The driver then slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the bus that was departing in front of us.
I looked through the door to see a black man about my age, wearing a suit and a white collared shirt. He looked as mystified as I felt about why the driver had shut the doors in his face when he was right behind me in the bus queue.
We idled behind the bus that had departed in front of us, then waited for the traffic signal at the end of the ramp to change, behind several cars and another bus. As we were barely ten feet clear of the bus ramp, the man had walked up to the door and asked the driver to let him on. I didn’t hear exactly what he was saying, but I saw him pantomiming about the imminent rain, how he didn’t have an umbrella, and he didn’t want to ruin his suit.
Other passengers encouraged the driver to let him on, saying the sky was about to fall out and we weren’t even moving. The driver said he could take the next bus (which would be in 15 minutes) and that “that stupid fool” ought to get out of the road so he doesn’t get hit by a car.
The bus proceeded around a curving road and the next two stops, then turned back toward the road that extends out of the ferry terminal ramp. The man had evidently run uphill on one of the one-way side streets to meet our bus at the third stop on its route. He stepped aside to let passengers exit out of the front door of the bus, then the driver shut the doors rapidly on him again before he could get a foot onto the step. The other passengers on the bus burst out into an uproar, asking what the hell the driver was doing. One woman said, “Oh come on, after he ran up this big hill, you’re going to be that mean? That’s just hateful!”
The man again looked perplexed, and the passengers around me said she would never do that to a white man.
“He’s not some saggy pants-wearing street type, he’s a good working man, he’s wearing a suit! Don’t treat him like that!” another woman yelled.
The driver said that she had the right to deny service to anyone she wanted and that she “didn’t like the look of him.” She accelerated again so quickly that several passengers fell off their balance, and she had to swerve and slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a pedestrian and a car in front of us.
Amazingly, the man caught up to the bus again, and the driver let passengers off and closed the doors in his face a third time. By this point it was clear that everyone on the bus believed the driver’s denial of service was racially motivated. Several passengers told her they would be making complaints, and they took down her license number and information. They even tried bargaining with her, saying they wouldn’t complain if she would just let the man on the bus so he could get home already.
My stop was the next stop, and I took my time with my suitcase on the back steps, looking down the street to see if the man had been able to catch up to us again (I didn’t see him). As I was walking into the gates of my apartment complex, one of my neighbors who looked a few years younger than me leaned in confidentially to say, “I wouldn’t have let him on.”
“I’m sorry?” I said, not fully registering what she had said.
“You were on the 42 bus, weren’t you? That black guy?” she said.
“Oh yeah, that was nuts,” I said, worried where her tone was going.
“I’m just saying, with black guys like that, if they get angry? I wouldn’t have let him on either. Who knows what he’d do?”
“Yeah, umm, I don’t know,” I stammered, giving her a doubtful look and wondering if this was how all the other white passengers felt.
Did the other outraged passengers on the bus read my less vocal upset and expression of discomfort as some kind of support for the driver? Are white people actually super racist and I’ve just been deluding myself??
I was so furious at the driver and the way she made this man feel, intentionally or not, that I wrote every detail in a formal complaint letter to the MTA as soon as I got home. I have a hard time believing she pointedly denied him service three times for any reason other than his race.
I’ve regularly seen drivers wait for a passenger running down the street to catch a bus, I’ve seen them let people on at the end of the ramp at the ferry terminal, and I’ve seen them stop partway down a street when they realized someone was trying to catch a ride. I’ve seen drivers have so little regard for sticking to their schedule that they’ve made a queue of people wait an extra five or ten minutes in sub-zero temperatures so they could finish their cigarettes and have the full break they wanted. I’ve never seen a driver work so hard to outrun a passenger that she would endanger everyone else on her bus driving recklessly between stops, and I’ve never seen someone so utterly unconcerned with letting a whole bus believe she was denying service to a black man just because she could.
I don’t realistically imagine anything will come of my complaint letter, but I needed this man’s experience to be written down and to go on record somewhere. I needed the outrage that everyone on the bus felt at what seemed like flagrant racism to be expressed.
We may not have formal segregation anymore, but we still have a long, long way to go.