What Do We Make of Us?

We were standing in the checkout line at our local grocery, this stranger and I, admiring each other’s necklace.

Hers was a ruby embedded in a tiny gold leaf, a gift from her grandmother when she was a child. Mine was a rough-hewn silver cross from Ireland, a gift from my daughter.

Being women, we were filling the empty space of waiting with shared details of our lives. We quickly established that we were only a year apart in age and that both of us had waited until the last minute to decide what to make for dinner.

She and I live in the same patch of Cleveland — but in very different neighborhoods. She is an office clerk, her days determined by someone else’s clock at a large hospital complex. I am a writer and a journalism professor, accustomed to a daily rhythm determined largely by me. None of these differences is why she has such a different experience than I do in America every day.

She is black, and I am white.

That is everything. In 2017, still.

She was rubbing the gold leaf dangling around her neck, and I was fidgeting with the cross around mine, which is how we started talking about their histories. At one point, she reached across my cart and gently touched the cross in my fingers.

“What would he make of us now?” she said.

I was so grateful for that one word: us.

No blame, no accusations, just a soft question — and her imploring eyes.

If you’re into dividing communities by race, then I was on her turf, the only white customer in the store. But she didn’t treat me that way. Through word and deed, she made clear that we were just two women at the end of a long day wondering aloud what the Jesus we were raised to love would think of what too many people in this country are doing to one another now.

“Us,” she said, making no distinctions, drawing no lines.

Three weeks later, white supremacists brought their brand of violent racism to Charlottesville, Virginia.

I can’t get her off of my mind.

Let’s rephrase her question to include Americans of every faith and no faith at all:

How do we feel about ourselves now?

Earlier this month, the nonpartisan Public Religion Research Institute released poll findings that offer some troubling answers. Excerpts:

–“Republicans are significantly more likely to say whites, rather than blacks, experience a lot of discrimination in the U.S. today (43 percent vs. 27 percent, respectively).

“Democrats and independents are far more likely to say blacks experience a lot of discrimination than to say the same about whites (82 percent vs. 19 percent and 59 percent vs. 30 percent, respectively).”

“The partisan gap in perceptions of discrimination against blacks has increased substantially over the last four years, driven primarily by shifts among Democrats.”

My Lord.

If you’re white, I’d love to know: When is the last time you saw the lights of a police cruiser in your rearview mirror and feared for your life? How often do you walk into a store and feel the insult of a security guard’s suspicious eyes?

When is the last time you strolled past young children and watched their parents pull them close, away from you?

I’ve read enough reader mail over the years to know I’ll be hearing from those white readers claiming, Yes, ma’am, this has happened to white, innocent me. “Singled out for my color,” is a popular refrain.

My response to them is always the same: If you know what it feels like to be unfairly targeted, surely you can summon empathy for the next person who is.

I’ve been looking for that woman in the grocery since the horrible day in Charlottesville. I weave my cart up and down the aisles, hoping to see her.

I want to tell her that I’m still thinking about what Jesus might have to say about all this — that even though I don’t know, keeping the question close has brought me comfort.

I want to ask her how she’s doing.

I want to apologize, too, for never asking for her name.

——

. To find out more about Connie Schultz (con.schultz@yahoo.com) and read her past columns, please visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.