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Rod Watson: Racism’s hidden toll: always having to wonder
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Rod Watson: Racism’s hidden toll: always having to wonder

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A year later, racial reckoning yields uncertainty in giving

A protester calls out to police standing guard behind security fencing last year at St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington amid continuing anti-racism demonstrations.

Smiling faces sometimes

Pretend to be your friend

Smiling faces show no traces

Of the evil that lurks within

– from the song “Smiling Faces” by Undisputed Truth

When Brandeis University professor Thomas Shapiro wrote “The Hidden Cost of Being African American,” he didn’t include the most insidious price that Blacks pay.

Shapiro laid out in graphic detail the economic toll racism takes on African Americans who, as a whole, have yet to close the gaps that discrimination created in wealth, income, education and every other socioeconomic category.

But that is only the most tangible part of the story.

The really hidden cost of being Black is this: How do you measure the toll of never knowing?

How do you measure the mental and psychological cost of living every day wondering where the next slight will come from? Of trying not to stereotype whites – and teaching your children not to stereotype – while knowing that you and your kids may still be stereotyped by the same whites who are smiling in your face?

That’s the challenge a Buffalo mother now faces. But if you’re African American, it’s a universal one: Trying not to prejudge while always wondering – but rarely knowing for sure – if you’re being judged simply for being Black.

This mother and homeowner obviously was, by a white Tonawanda contractor who installs window blinds and was hit with $10,000 in sanctions by a state Division of Human Rights administrative law judge. The state concluded he referred to the woman with America’s most vile racial slur in a text message the daughter saw when answering her mother’s phone.

The text obviously went to the woman by mistake, and when apologizing the next day, contractor William I. Miller even claimed – incredibly – that it was sent by his brother, not him. But everything in the message – detailed in Sunday’s Buffalo News – pointed to Miller as the culprit.

The mother testified she was hurt, in part, because she had done business with Miller before and even recommended him to her father, who also had hired him.

But that was not enough. A cordial professional relationship and superficial smiles are no shield against bigotry.

We learned that same lesson six years ago when Buffalo public housing commissioner Joe Mascia – a vocal advocate for tenants, most of whom are Black – was caught on a recording using the same slur.

As in this case, and in so many other interracial interactions, it was a gut punch to Blacks who want to believe white smiles are genuine.

Driving while Black. Jogging while Black. Bird-watching while Black. Swimming while Black. The catalog of overt incidents continues to expand.

But living while Black also includes the hidden toll of never knowing for sure who you’re dealing with.

And so you wonder.

Is the wait for a restaurant table really an hour for everyone, or just for you? Is the dress code really an effort to maintain standards, or is it just for you? Did the vacant apartment really get rented just before you applied, or is it unavailable just to you?

If you’re white, you never have to worry about that. If you’re Black, it’s what you live with every day and try to steel yourself against mentally.

Miller is appealing his fine on the grounds that his Blind Faith Window Coverings never denied the woman its services. But after getting the text message, she would have been crazy to invite him back into her home.

As a group, we just might be. After reviewing recent studies, a 2020 article in Medical News Today concluded that “Racism … is also responsible for increasing disparities in physical and mental health among Black, Indigenous, and people of color.”

If you don’t have to live with that mental toll every day, it’s easy to accuse Blacks of “playing the race card,” despite the fact that this society has historically – and as current attacks on voting rights make clear, still does – dealt from the bottom of the deck with African Americans.

But for those who do live it, this toll on the psyche is on top of the economic toll of higher insurance rates, more traffic tickets, or being ripped off by corner stores because supermarkets won’t locate where you live.

In her testimony during the hearing, the woman explained that her 14-year-old daughter has “best friends of the opposite race” and that she had tried to shield the girl from racism because she “didn't want her to feel a certain way about how the – how some people might think and feel.”

A racist text message burst that protective bubble and left the girl in tears. Now the kid – like so many other Blacks – may always wonder, may always have that niggling little doubt about what really lurks behind a friendly demeanor.

Fines or reparations? They could make up for some of the economic damage.

But the emotional and psychological damage?

America doesn’t have enough money for that.

The Buffalo News: Good Morning, Buffalo

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Urban Affairs Editor/Columnist

I write a weekly column, most often about socioeconomic and political issues affecting people of color and the disadvantaged in Western New York.

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