Segregation in Syracuse: Racist preconceptions still exist, and they’re in our backyard

In her twangiest Manhattan accent, comedienne Joan Rivers used to begin her shtick by saying, “Can we talk?” And talk they did during the George Zimmerman trial. There they were, television trial experts-drips under pressure-sitting in Brady Bunch-style talking cubes, bantering back and forth about race, fear and the boogie man.

“Lions and tigers and blacks, oh my!”

My goodness, sweet Jesus! It was pearl-clutching time when the president of the United States in an unscripted session talked about race and the feelings emanating from the African-American community. He talked about something he knows personally: being black in America.

It was so poignant to hear the president of the United States reach into my brain and pull out things I had long tried to forget. Growing up in Syracuse, being black sucked. When we were kids we were taught boundaries. We were told where we could and couldn’t go. We were taught how to shop in stores when you’re constantly being watched.

In my family, we were taught to get a receipt and a bag. If the store owner refused to provide the bag or receipt, we were instructed to get our money and come right on home. Whenever we brought anything into that house, we’d better have a receipt and bag. At that time, it was common for black kids to be accused of stealing, so the children in my family were taught how to be consumers.

One Saturday morning, my mother went to National Shoes on Salina Street downtown. She waited and waited while the saleswoman attended to white customers. After a while, she asked why she hadn’t been waited on, and the woman said something about “serving n*****s.” My mother filed a complaint with the now-defunct Onondaga County Human Rights Commission, and the woman was fired.

In 1979, my parents purchased a home on the East Side of Syracuse, slightly past Le Moyne College. One afternoon, a man came to the house, and my mother answered the door. The salesman said, “May I speak with the lady of the house?” He thought she was “the help.”

As my friends and I came of age, we naturally wanted to check the city’s disco scene. Everyone had to show identification at the door. If you were black and not a Syracuse University athlete, chances are you wouldn’t get in. In the city of Ithaca, I could go anywhere, and yet when I was home from college, my friends and I could not enjoy a night on the town. That wasn’t so long ago- 1970s through the 1980s-but in Syracuse, blacks had to go to their own places. It was entertainment segregation.

Whites were free to enter the trendy clubs whenever they wanted. We’d often stand in line at a local club and see the discriminatory nature of the admittance policies. While the IDs that had worked for us last month were no longer accepted, whites would stroll right in, no questions asked.

Clubs such as Night Deposit were busted in a local television sting that caught the club apparently discriminating against African-Americans. A group of us went to the local NAACP and were told, “We have more important things to think about than you dancing at a disco.” It’s no coincidence that none of us now carry an NAACP membership card.

After becoming an adult, I obtained my first professional job at Kemper Insurance. The company went on an extensive hiring spree, adding dozens of African-Americans to its workforce. On the first day, a co-worker said to me, “I wish Kemper hired black people who knew about insurance instead of blacks off the street.” She was soon fired.

While at Kemper, I decided to go to lunch one day at a nice place on Warren Street. I wore a tie and just felt kinda professional that day. As I entered, I was asked, “Are you here for the bus boy job interview?” I simply replied, “No, I want to be seated.” I was invisible. It didn’t matter what my education was or how I dressed. I was labeled from the moment I walked in.

Talk about stereotypes, while I was director of development at the New York State Fair, a staff member once asked me, “Are you the new parking attendant?” You’d think that the election of an African-American president would improve things. But no, it has gotten worse. I was with a company under contract when the election of Barack Obama spurred hate-laced internal email blasts. I received a series of missives via company email stating, “The financial crisis we face has been caused by black people getting houses they can’t afford.”

I’d respond with data to refute those claims, but after two weeks of online abuse, I went to the boss and said, “Make it stop.” These were Syracuse-based managers generating this demeaning misinformation.

At the Dollar Store examining merchandise while two employees were making sure I wasn’t stealing, out of the corner of my eye I could see a couple snatching items off the shelves. Someone shouted, “Hey!” The employees who were focused on me had to run to the door, but by then it was too late. The couple fled with the merchandise.

Sometimes the real me still remains invisible. In June, I was at OCM BOCES to attend an Access Computer Software class. The person at the information desk took one look at me and asked, “Are you here for the GED class? It’s right down the hall.”

Thanks so much. Have a nice day.