I don’t know Jonathan Butler, the Mizzou hunger striker, and I’ve only been to the campus a few times, but it’s hard for me to believe all this happened just because of the three reported incidents.
Most of the Black guys I know don’t bring up the occasional acts of prejudice they encounter. Their White friends or workmates are the ones that generally think much less about race, and the Black guys appreciate that it’s possible to just have a friendship at an individual level. Mentioning the store employee that seemed to shadow you as you shopped reminds them you are Black, and has a chance of making some White friends uncomfortable. But if you catch a Black man of any age in the right mood, the right conversation, they all have stories about random acts of verbal hatred or Driving While Black, some just dispiriting, some truly frightening. And generally, the stories end with a shrug of “What are you going to do?” Because there is no real upside for a Black person complaining about being verbally assaulted, and plenty of downside – their evening would be even more ruined, they would have confirmed that the hurtful language did in fact hurt and probably nothing would come of their complaint. So most of the times, Black men and women just let it pass.
It’s far, far better than is was decades ago. In the vast majority of workplaces, verbal hatred is a firing offense, as it should be, and we as a society have made great strides in reducing racism and its impact on our Black citizens. Even in public now it’s less likely to be a White person directly calling a Black person a “n__r” and far more likely to be a guy facing away, talking to his friends, seeming to slip and say the word “n___r” loudly as his friends laugh.
But it feels like it has gotten a bit worse since Obama was elected President. Blacks generally avoid going places where they will feel palpable hatred, and the White people that don’t like Black people generally manage to avoid having them in their lives. But having a Black president brought their hatred to the surface, and it’s spilled over into every day interactions. A prejudiced White guy might not be able to do anything about the President but he can sure ruin the day of the random Black guy he meets.
For my Blacks friends, Obama’s election brought a burst of pride and hope, a feeling that maybe our country finally was moving beyond race. But eventually many came to believe that the White people that hated Black people would do anything in their power to keep him from succeeding, even if it meant harming our country. Racism wasn’t dead, and seemed to again be getting worse. White people felt free to publicly say disrespectful and even hateful things about the President and sometimes it seemed as if society was ganging up on Blacks to keep them from participating in our society.
I have White friends say that it seems like Black people want to make everything about racism now. No doubt Blacks are more sensitive about racism and far more likely to call out racism when they experience it. Maybe Jonathan Butler was acting just because of these three incidents – who knows, maybe causing the resignation of the school president was a gross over-reaction to three rare, isolated events. But it’s also possible that Black students on campus do have to deal with verbal hatred by fellow students on a regular basis and just figured there was nothing they could do about it. Maybe all of this happened because Jonathan Butler got tired of having to pretend he didn’t hear it when a student called him n___r.