How it Feels to be a Beetle

 

Ian de Beer

 

            2:30 am on a Tuesday morning a friend of mine, David, decides to take his dog for a walk and visit his girlfriend; whom he was not technically allowed to see by his parents. Young Romeo, in defiance of their wishes, had waited till this time to sneak out and figured “walking his dog” was a smooth cover-up, so he and his dog, Charlie, took off. Two blocks from his house and only one block from his girlfriend’s, David noticed a car lagging behind him, a dark green Bonneville, windows down and the high beams on. He looked at the characters in the car; they were all young black men presumably close in age to each other. David, an educated kid, thought to himself “Why am I even worried about these guys? I mean, just because they’re black doesn’t mean they’re out to get me.” The car stopped. Four men got out and demanded money from David. After he told them he had none, it only took one right swing from the first gentleman to crack David’s skull above his left eye and knock him to the ground where he was kicked and stomped for the next half minute.

            I’ve lived in Buffalo my whole life but it’s only been in the past two or so years that I’ve noticed how extremely segregated the city is. While a strong majority of Buffalo’s population is white, there is a fairly even ratio of Blacks to Hispanics. The problem is not the differences in percents of total population among ethnicities; the problem is the separation and lack of integration of these groups. The dissimilarity index for Buffalo, which measures the relative separation or integration of ethnicities across all neighborhoods of the city looks strikingly similar to the dissimilarity indexes of some of the most notoriously segregated cities in the nation; cities such as Houston, Sacramento, San Francisco, and of course New York and Los Angeles. There is a striking difference between the predominantly white population in David’s North Buffalo neighborhood and the mostly black population of the nearby Eastside.

            David eventually got himself up and staggered home. His parents called the police right away. David talked to roughly 7 or 8 police officers, made his report, and was taken to the hospital where he’d stay for the next two days. The beating he had endured would require David get facial reconstructive surgery.

 The incident made the papers. Everyone in our community heard about it. Our school even encouraged everyone to visit David after he came home from the hospital to show support. At the time David was one of my closest friends at the time so I got to witness, first hand, how all of these people reacted to what had happened, and although it was generally a peaceful sentiment that the people that lived in the blocks surrounding David’s house emitted, I picked up an undertone of hate directed not solely towards the four men that had put David in the hospital, but a hate that stretched over to the people that lived less than a mile away, on the other side of Main street. It was assumed that the men had come from the nearby Eastside of Buffalo into North Buffalo in search of a wealthy person out on a late night stroll, completely comfortable with his surroundings; that these men from the Eastside came into their community in search of a victim. I do not wish to argue that this assumption is wrong, because we’ll never truly know. However, it was this assumption that strongly influenced one community’s perception of the other, and on a more personal level, created distance between myself and a person that I was, at the time, very close to.

            For the weeks between the incident and David’s facial reconstructive surgery he was housebound so I spent a lot of time there with him, exchanging views on what had happened, discussing possible ways it could have or could not have been avoided, and mocking some of the insincere responses kids at school, whom he hadn’t previously talked to, had delivered.

It was during these conversations that it became painfully obvious to me that David had changed. He believed that he had been targeted, as a small white kid, and that nobody from his predominantly white neighborhood would have committed such an act of violence. I attempted to reason with him and explain that the lives the men that had beaten him have lead must have been extremely difficult; that these men have endured far more pain, without any support from their community, friends, or teachers. These men have been driven to the point in their lives in which robbing and beating a vulnerable teenage kid doesn’t seem like a bad idea. I told him to imagine being those men, and if he could not do that, imagine being the people who lived in communities with those men and were wrongfully hated by no fault of their own.

            “Yeah that’s easy for you to say. You’ve never had your skull cracked.” Dave would respond. And all I could say to that was “Fine.” I went on believing what I believed, and David did the same. While everything eventually cleared up and we slowly forgot about the incident, every now and then David would make a racist comment, and I’d be forced against my will to acknowledge the fact that racism exists between people in my city, in my school, and in my close circle of friends.

            A conflict as immense as racial tension in a city seems almost insurmountable, and to be honest I do not possess high hopes in that it will end any time soon. However, like any other large scale conflict it begins with the individual. The acquisition of empathy suggested in Nadesau Satyendra’s essay, “Conflict Resolution in Empire and Beyond,” is essential to the resolution of conflict found in those who hold negative racial prejudices. David will never experience a day in the life of a young black male living in the eastside of Buffalo, nor will the men who beat David fully understand how they had affected his mind and to a larger extent, jaded a whole community. It is the idea Satyendra had quoted in the essay and I will now quote in mine, that tells how we, as human-beings, can become educated and empathetic to the people we view as different. “If you want to influence them, you also need to understand empathetically the power of their point of view and to feel the emotional force with which they believe in it. It is not enough to study them like beetles under a microscope; you need to know what it feels like to be a beetle….”