knocking on doors while black: my neighborhood, my neighbors, my confusion

by nikki meredith

front doorLast week, around noon on a weekday, a young African-American man knocked on my front door. He was there to talk me into signing up for AT&T high speed internet.  As most people know AT&T and Comcast are fiercely competing for subscribers. He said he could save me a lot of money if I switched. I told him we had actually scheduled a switch a couple of weeks before but after interviewing neighbors who had made the change and didn’t like it, we decided to stick with Comcast.   I added that all of my doubts about AT&T were confirmed when I was on hold for 45 minutes while I waited to cancel the installation appointment. He laughed. “Yes,” he said, “there’s been a problem with the way customers have been treated. We’re trying to improve the situation.” He works for a company that contracts with AT&T. Their mandate is to improve customer relations.

There was something about this young man I liked. For one thing there was no hard sell. For another, he had dimples. I’ve always been a sucker for dimples and he was boyishly handsome in a way that reminded me of my son when he was in his early 20’s. Also, there was something endearing about his enthusiasm for the new and improved AT&T. I never thought I would find enthusiasm for AT&T endearing, which gives you some idea of the man’s appeal. I told him to come back in a year and maybe I’d reconsider.

He was nicely dressed in a navy blue blazer, khaki pants, a crisp white shirt and a tie. There was not a single thing about him that signaled danger. These facts will later become relevant.

Before he left we talked about dogs. Our dog is a golden doodle. He told me his girlfriend, soon-to-be-wife, as a maltipoo. We talked about how great poodle hybrids are. We talked about how great dogs are. We talked about how pretty the redwood trees in our neighborhood are.

About two hours later I was walking my dog on the main street of our little canyon and I saw him as he was making his way down the steps of a house. The day had turned warm – warm and humid — but he still had his jacket and tie on. We joked about the hills he had yet to climb – he planned to comb as much of the canyon as he had time for. I pointed out a house he shouldn’t waste his time on – I knew they had switched to AT&T and didn’t like the service. Also, once signed-up, they had a hell of a time getting out of their contract. He shook his head. “Not good,” he said. Once again, he said he was hoping that sort of frustration for customers would soon be a thing of the past.

A couple hours later, by then it was dusk, I saw him again. I was walking towards home, he was walking out of the canyon. “Hey,” I said, as he approached, “Any luck?” He had a look on his face that, at first, I couldn’t interpret. When he got closer I realized he had tears in his eyes.

I assumed his tears were about frustration, about walking up and down our hilly streets all day in muggy weather with nothing to show for it. I thought, as I often have, how hard selling must be. Especially door-to-door. I said something to that effect.

“That’s not it,” he said, shaking his head. “I’ve never been treated with such rudeness by so many people in my whole life.” He took a deep breath, “…and the last lady…” he pointed up the street to Olive Ave, “she told me to go away. She didn’t want to talk to me. She told me to get off her property.”unwelcome mat

“I’m so embarrassed,” he said, struggling to maintain his composure. “I’m so sorry to lay this on you.”

“Please don’t be embarrassed,” I said. Now I was struggling not to cry.

He paused again. I waited. “It seemed like every door I knocked on today was unlocked – I’m not used to that in the neighborhoods where I usually go – but as soon as they saw me, either through a glass door or through a peep hole, they quickly locked their door. I couldn’t believe it.”

I didn’t want to believe what he was telling me. He said that he grew up among white people in Half Moon Bay and though he didn’t face prejudice as a kid, his parents cautioned him that he would as an adult. It’s hard to believe but apparently our neighborhood was his introduction.

What broke my heart was the contrast between the eager young man who had been at my door several hours before and even the tired but determined guy a couple of hours later and now the crumpled guy in front of me. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as desperate to do something. To fix it. To prove to him and to myself that there was an explanation other than the racial one.

I asked him about the other neighborhoods he’d been to. Berkeley, San Rafael, San Francisco. Nowhere else had he been rebuffed in quite the same way.

Earlier in the day I had lunch with a young friend who lives in Berkeley with her husband and her two young daughters. It borders a sketchy neighborhood and they occasionally hear gunfire. Sometimes when out walking with her kids, she fears for them, for herself. I said it was one of the things I loved about raising children in Marin. I didn’t worry about their safety. Also, it gave them an appreciation for the natural environment that I didn’t have as an urban kid growing up in Los Angeles. But, I said, it often felt like my husband and I were raising kids in a greenhouse. We made an effort to take them places where they would see people who didn’t look like us. I knew it wasn’t enough but I believed that the trade-off was worth it. Last week, as I walked home among the redwoods, the beauty that surrounded me seemed like a stage set in a play I wanted no part of.

I know it’s complicated. I know there are explanations for the way he was treated that don’t include racism. People don’t like being interrupted whether it’s on the phone or at their front door. People lock doors when they’re afraid. But why were they afraid?

I think he was stunned because he had always played by the rules or what he thought were the rules. He dressed well, he was polite, he was friendly. The person he saw in the mirror was not a person who got doors locked in his face. Not a person who is ordered off someone’s property. He wasn’t angry – I would have found that easier to handle. He was hurt and, I think, humiliated.

For me, until that day, expressions like driving while black were an abstraction — a subject for policy discussions on racial profiling, fodder for late night jokes on t.v.,   But there was nothing abstract about that young man’s hurt. Every time I think of his face, think of the contrast between his eagerness and his despair, I think about his mother. How do you prepare your kid for that? Maybe his race didn’t have anything to do with a bunch of grumpy white people telling him to get lost but how will he ever know? How could he?

We talked more about his work and I said that maybe going door-to-door was not a good approach these days but he said the company has been very successful in other neighborhoods. They’ve signed up hundreds. He said in other neighborhoods when people are told they can save anywhere from $50 to $200 a month they open the door. They want to hear more.

Our canyon is part of an online neighborhood forum called Next Door. I posted a description of the incident the next day and titled it “Who Are We?” and asked for comments. Most people wrote that they felt bad for him but doubted the response to him had anything to do with race. Most believed that the rejection must have had more to do with a knee-jerk reaction to a salesman knocking on the door.

I didn’t know what to believe. My neighborhood is Lilly-white but I’m pretty sure that if an African-American family moved in, people would go out of their way to be welcoming. (If I didn’t believe that I couldn’t live here.) But I don’t think that completely invalidates this young man’s perception.redwoods

Last week there was an editorial in the New York Times responding to a new report released by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. The study, which examined the disciplinary practices of 97,000 public schools, showed that excessively punitive policies are being used against African-American kids at every level of the public school system — even against 4-year-olds in preschool. School districts routinely invoke harsher punishments against minority students than their non-minority classmates, even when the behaviors being punished are identical. (italics are mine.)

Many comments from the Time’s readers echoed the comments I received from my post. Most people, presumably white, questioned the results. This kind of racism was not consistent with how they experienced the world. Many believed that the issue was class not race, but there is research across the board in most American institutions – medicine, finance, the academy – that control for other variables, and, for the most part, racial attitudes trump all others. Over the weekend, Brent Staples, an African-American editorial writer, wrote that while he doubted that the school officials responsible for these cruelties were intent on doing harm, the effect of these disparate policies is in fact racist.

“Racism, after all, is in the very air that we breathe as Americans. It filters the way many of us see the world (whether we know it or not) and shapes decisions of all kinds…”

I have no way of knowing what was in the hearts of my neighbors who were rude to that young man but, I fear, there’s plenty of science to back his perceptions.