I board the Green Line, traveling east from downtown Minneapolis. It’s my first time taking the new line mid-day on a weekday, and I’m riding it just a few stops. It seems quiet.
The only person seated in my section—he’s across the aisle, a couple rows ahead of me—is a young man, neatly dressed, with a backpack. He looks like he might be a college student.
Next stop, the doors open, another guy enters, somewhat older than the first, very different style of dress, hair, head covering.
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The newly arrived passenger takes a seat directly across from the first, then leans over to ask something. I see the younger man shake his head and say, “no,” to the question or request.
A couple of minutes pass.
Then I hear the second man ask, “Where you headed?”
“To visit my mom at Fairview Riverside.”
“Oh. What’s she in for?”
“She has stage four leukemia.”
Then softly, “I’ll pray for your mom.”
I watch as the younger man places his head in his hands, covering his eyes. I’m certain he’s holding back tears.
I exit soon after, but the scene lingers.
With the opening of the Green Line we hear a lot about its costs—particularly to taxpayers and struggling business owners—and who stands to benefit. How will the new line impact commuters, small businesses, neighborhood residents, developers, and the cities as a whole? All are important questions.
What’s rarely, if ever mentioned when talking about the Green Line, or mass transit in general, are the social benefits for riders; how it can enrich one’s life, expose a person to others who they might not normally interact with, how it has the potential to expand one’s worldview.
Buses and trains provide shared spaces where people of a variety of social backgrounds figuratively and sometimes literally rub elbows. If you’re a regular passenger, you can’t help but come to appreciate the shared humanity of fellow riders, and to look at the world—or at least that small sliver of the world that comprises your daily life—differently. How we get around–and where we choose to place ourselves–has cumulative effects.
Absent such experiences, it’s easier to hang on to preconceived notions of this group or that, to view them as “Other,” perceive them as “aliens,” not fully human.
Having one’s own car is a mark of independence and a convenience. It’s something that people living in this country aspire to, albeit one that many cannot afford.
There are downsides, however. As a form of transportation, the automobile, by its very nature, holds other people, particularly strangers, at a distance. Film scholar Anne Friedberg compares the private mobility of driving to cinematic spectatorship. The driver moves from point A to point B in a private bubble, not having to deal with some of the unpredictability and inconvenience of mass transit, something nearly always viewed as a benefit.
Behind the wheel, a driver’s task is to be attentive to fellow drivers, cyclists, and walkers, all from a distance, on the other side of the windshield. These days, truth be told, she or he is more likely to be tuned in to a conversation on the cellphone they’re holding, the text message they’re typing, or email or Facebook post they’re reading, all of which put them in another space entirely, placing others’ and their own safety and lives at risk.
When I first entertained writing about the Green Line encounter I’d observed, these were among the issues I’d expected to explore. Then I got busy, time elapsed, the piece was never written, and other things happened, including the shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown by a Ferguson, Missouri police officer.
It was Michael Brown’s killing that got me thinking about my experience once again, however from a different angle this time.
As I relived the encounter on the Green Line, I couldn’t help but wonder: How was the younger of the two men doing? How was his mother? Was she even still alive?
And what about the other man? What impact did the exchange have on him…all because he’d asked a simple question of a stranger seated across the aisle? Did he pray, like he said he would, for the younger man’s mom?
And why was this interaction so powerful to me?
What I’d observed was a quiet, but meaningful interaction between two strangers, two young men of an age that can be particularly stoic, and two individuals who, by their appearance, struck me as coming from very different backgrounds. That the encounter was unexpected for all of those reasons was what gave it so much power. It was an experience I would not have had if I hadn’t hopped the Green Line that day.
I have no idea what these two men’s daily lives are like, but I can pretty much guarantee, based on countless conversations I’ve had over the years with friends, neighbors, students, colleagues, interview subjects, and total strangers of color, that both are profiled on a regular basis, seen only as young black men by the majority white population, and eyed suspiciously, fearfully. Either one of them, I imagine, could be Michael Brown.
I’ve heard stories of profiling from, among others: an African American student from New York City, football player build, who shared a poem with me describing how white people crossed the street whenever they saw him approach; a middle-aged African American female professor, with a PhD from Stanford, who said she experienced suspicious stares on her daily walks through her neighborhood, in a very liberal, first ring suburb of DC; a successful young, Cuban American business owner, who was pulled over, “for being brown,” whenever he visited his then-girlfriend in her tony Northern Virginia suburb, something he eventually stopped doing; the friend whose black son was studying engineering, a straight A student, regularly trailed in stores at the mall, pulled over when driving, questioned by police, even while working on his car in the driveway of his family’s suburban Maryland home.
And then there was one rainy fall evening, near the intersection of 13th & U in Northwest DC, when an elderly woman flagged me down to ask if I would hail her a cab. She’d been trying for nearly an hour, to no avail. It was only a matter of minutes before a cab pulled to the curb for me, the white guy, just long enough for the woman to share a bit of her life story and the challenges of being black in a city that at the time was still majority African American, and home to the first black President. The driver frowned when I ushered the retired teacher into the cab’s back seat.
Perhaps most strongly etched in my memory, however, is this: One of my professors, who had recently learned she was pregnant, confiding during a graduate seminar that her deepest hope was that her child, her first, be a girl. It was not for any of the reasons that an expectant white mother might hope the very same thing. It was because she feared the consequences of bringing another black boy into this world, knowing what dangers he would face, growing up in Baltimore, or anyplace in the United States.
All these years later, profiling remains a daily reality for a significant percentage of the population, with young African American men still experiencing the harshest consequences.
There are many reasons why this situation hasn’t changed, far too many to explore here, but a very basic one, I think, is that there are too few spaces where people of different backgrounds regularly come together, to have or to witness the kinds of encounters that I observed on the Green Line that day.
As more of life is experienced through mediated encounters—screens of various kinds, computers, smartphones, television, social media, etc.—and from the private bubbles of our cars, the more we risk isolating ourselves even further. Removing us from that bubble is one benefit of mass transit that is hard to put a price on, and one that we really need to begin paying attention to.