House hunt turns up a solution to racism

This Just In...

July 10, 2000|By Dan Rodricks

THIS IS NOT the story originally proposed. The one originally proposed - by a man named Darryl - went something like this: Black man tries to buy house in white, suburban Baltimore neighborhood; seller treats him poorly in an effort to discourage sale.

But this is not that story.

Nor is it, at the other extreme, simply an innocent misunderstanding. Several times a year, an aggrieved man or woman contacts me to complain of some terrible offense and, upon further inspection, I discover that the offense was not as bad as claimed, or that it's groundless. Such stories are columns never written.

Which is what we almost had here, except that I think Darryl's story offers some lessons in American life.

Lesson 1: Blatant, historical and classic-form racism has left black skin sensitive to all minor forms of racism, and in a realm where perception is evidence, the worst often gets assumed.

Lesson 2: It can hurt as much to be unfairly accused of racism as to be a genuine victim of it.

Lesson 3: If blacks and whites ever talked to each other about these things, we might get somewhere.

I first met Darryl a couple of years ago. He's a good guy - bright, involved and proud of having grown up in Turners Station, the African-American enclave of Dundalk in southeastern Baltimore County that produced, among many others, Kweisi Mfume, president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

In May, Darryl, who works as a computer consultant, was looking for a house to buy. A place in Parkville appealed to him and, despite warnings from friends about shopping for a house in a predominantly white community, he asked his real estate agent to arrange a look.

"My friends who are African-American wondered aloud why I would want to buy a house in Parkville," Darryl said. "They talked about prejudice. But I am the type of guy who believes that that kind of stuff - ignorant people - are everywhere, and I am not going to allow prejudice to dictate where I live."

Darryl had a 6 p.m. appointment to tour the house. He pulled up in his car at 6:03, made a U-turn and parked across the street.

"There were two families, both white, playing catch out front, parents and their children," he recalled. "Both the families were white. I rolled down my window to catch a breeze, and they nodded and acknowledged my presence. They continued to play ball for about 10 more minutes. I waited for my real estate agent to arrive. The next thing that happened was the family next door went inside and shut the front door. My family - the people who had a 6 o'clock appointment with my real estate agent - got into their van and backed out of the driveway. Just then, about 6:15, my real estate agent pulled up and flagged the van down. The driver got out, escorted us to the house, showed us how to lock the door, then he left. I was so mad."

Darryl believed that the seller was trying to skip out before a prospective buyer with black skin could get a look at the house.

"My mind began to wonder," Darryl reflected. "Had the neighbors asked them to leave? `You're not going to sell to that guy, are you?' Actually, what went through my mind was: `You're not going to sell to the nigger, are you? Just leave. Come back in an hour or two.'"

Darryl looked elsewhere for a house, and ended up buying one in Randallstown. But the incident in Parkville weighed heavily on him, and he reached unpleasant conclusions about the area.

"I did not see one other black family in that neighborhood," he wrote in an e-mail last month. "We, as black folks, don't want to live around whites. Who wants to come home to that every evening? Why live where you are not wanted? ... I know that racism exists, but still, I was so surprised at how rudely I was treated."

For Darryl, it was more than rudeness. It was a manifestation of an American social disease, and he wanted to vent about it.

"We have had a problem, we still have a problem and I don't think it will be solved anytime soon," he wrote. "Sure, we are cordial to one another at work, we say we're friends. But when was the last time you had a black person over for dinner? I must admit I have not had any white people over to my house. I'm just as bad as the next guy.

"You should hear what black folks say about whites, living around whites, having white friends, working with whites. It ain't pretty. There is racism and prejudice on both sides of the fence, and it seems like no one wants to jump the fence to see how the other guy is really doing. ... How are you ever going to find out about me if I isolate myself from you? My kids need to play with your kids, and we need to have a beer and a barbecue together."

I wrote a letter to the owner of the house, relating what Darryl had described. A few days later I got a call from him - his name is Sam - and I could tell he was upset. He said his wife was twice as upset.

They both were hurt and angry that Darryl had dismissed them as racists when there was a good reason for what had happened.

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