Before I sat down to write this week’s column on Sunday, April 30, I read a story online commemorating the 25th anniversary of the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Although a quarter century has passed since that terrible moment in time, I still remember April 30, 1992 like it was yesterday.
I was a sophomore at Mizzou in 1992, and on that particular Thursday morning, I was doing what I normally did on Thursdays: skipping class. After a long night spent carefully studying the effects of alcohol on a twenty year-old brain Wednesday evening, I could barely manage to drag myself out of bed the next day—let alone go to class.
By eleven or so, I was finally able to make myself a bowl of cereal and turn on the television. I flipped over to CNN to see what was happening in LA. The day before, I had watched in horror as white truck driver Reginald Denny was dragged from his truck and bludgeoned nearly to death by black rioters in broad daylight. The shocking footage would be re-aired on what seemed like a continuous loop for days afterward.
As I tried to wrap my head around the violence and chaos that had erupted as a result of the acquittal of four white police officers charged with using excessive force on a black motorist named Rodney King, I began to realize how insulated my life had been up until that point. I knew a few black people, I even called a couple of them my friends, but I had absolutely no idea what it must feel like to be a black man in America. Being a white Midwesterner from a small town, I couldn’t possibly understand how being subjected to a lifetime of institutional and overt racism could affect individuals and communities who’d been oppressed since birth.
I tried to empathize, but all I could think about was the image of a cinder block crushing that poor truck driver’s skull while the man who threw it celebrated triumphantly in the street. The centuries of oppression and the miscarriage of justice in the King case were lost in the images of brutal assaults, devastating fires, and rampant looting flickering on my TV screen. I was as liberal and equality-minded as anyone I knew, but at that moment, even sitting in the relative safety of my College Avenue apartment, I felt scared of black men and what they were capable of.
While I was finishing my bowl of Fruity Pebbles and contemplating the end of civilization as I had known it, there was a loud knock on my door. I was so startled that I nearly jumped out of my beer-stained recliner. The pounding on my door came with a sense of urgency, and as I quickly scrambled to answer it, I paused at the last moment to look through the peep-hole. And just as I had feared, there on my front step stood a tall, unhappy-looking black man.
My first instinct was to pretend not to be home. Then I remembered that in my haste to stop the loud knocking from igniting my hangover, I had shouted, “Coming!” at whoever was making the racket. I was committed to at least asking what the man wanted.
I tentatively opened the door, just a crack, and coolly said hello, as if I were not terrified of being attacked by an angry, disenfranchised black man. The gentleman introduced himself and said he was having some car problems. He asked if I might be able to drive him to an auto parts store. I resisted the very strong urge to ask, “Oh, you mean you’re not here to kill me?” and agreed to give him a ride.
During the drive, I quickly realized this stranger was just a regular guy like me who simply needed a hand. I felt completely ashamed of myself for the paranoid thoughts that had been racing through my mind since I first saw who was knocking at my door. The gentleman worked at a local steakhouse, and he needed to fix his car in order to get to work. He thanked me for the lift and admitted that he wasn’t sure if anyone would help a strange black man knocking on random doors.
I asked him if he’d been watching the news, and he said he hadn’t. He’d worked late the night before and hadn’t even turned on his set. At that point I felt obligated to bring him up to speed on what was happening in LA. Naturally, he was as horrified as I was. At first, it felt strange being a white man describing the LA riots to a black man, but soon I realized I was just a man discussing something terrible, yet terribly important, with another man. And then I felt ashamed of myself again.
Although I feel like I’ve come a long way toward treating people with respect and dignity rather than prejudice and fear in the last twenty five years, I know I can do better. And so can all of us. We can do better, America, and for the sake of our children and our nation’s future, we must.