Editor’s Note: The following is an opinion piece by Michael Smith, reporter for The Ithaca Voice.

ITHACA, NY — Ithaca has a race problem.

That’s not to say that Ithaca’s race problem is particularly egregious, or that it is really in any way special or noteworthy. It is simply a statement of fact. It’s a fact that can be easy to forget in a place like Ithaca. Much as we joke about being separated from reality, escaping it is only a fantasy.

So let’s talk about the reality.

We could start with Ithaca’s racial history.

We could talk about Shawn Greenwood and Keith Shumway, two young Black men killed by Ithaca police. Two young men who, like so many others, haven been reduced to either martyrs or thugs — and nothing in between — depending on who you ask.

We could talk about Amelia Kearney, who sued the Ithaca City School District when her seventh-grade daughter was discriminated against and harassed.

We could talk about how Black families are increasingly be priced out of the city.

We could connect it to the national discussion and talk about what it was like to turn on our televisions Wednesday night and see that another unarmed black man, Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by police while he had his hands up.

But for those choose to believe there is no problem, none of that is going to be convincing. There’s always a way to rationalize.

The problem with racism is that it is all but immune to reason. Instead, I’d like to appeal to your emotions. I want to tell you about what it’s like being Black in Ithaca.

Black and white

My experience is anything but “typical” for a Black man in America. First of all, I’m actually mixed-race — just as much white as Black — but that distinction makes no difference most of the time.

At age five, I was adopted into a white family, and I grew up in a mostly-white town and went to a mostly white school and had mostly white friends. For the majority of my school years, I was the only person of color — any color — in my class. College wasn’t much different.

Then I married a white woman and have a beautifully fair-skinned, blond-haired daughter, which I am sure makes us an object of curiosity when she and I are out and about without my wife.

I have a perfectly white-sounding name. I’m college educated. I can swim. I’ve never committed a crime. I don’t act, talk, walk or dress in a way that anyone would stereotype, maliciously or innocently, as “Black.” I don’t even like watermelon.

By almost every conceivable metric, I am closer to the average white man than I am to the average black man.

If racism were based on reason, I shouldn’t have to be worried. But it’s not, and I am.

Anxiety, anger and fear

Less than a quarter mile from where I live, on the edge of Newfield, a house proudly displays not one but two stickers of the confederate flag. They are certainly not the only ones I’ve seen around Tompkins County.

Passing by that house never fails to produce in me a strange mix of curiosity, frustration, disbelief and profound anxiety.

I consider myself lucky that that anxiety has never graduated to outright fear, despair or anger. But I can understand why it does.

Because when I walk into the Covered Bridge Store here in town, here in town — or anywhere really — I make a conscious effort to keep my hands in plain view. I try not to make more than one lap around the store, lest I “look suspicious.” I keep my hood down.

If I find myself walking behind someone for too long, even in broad daylight in the middle of Ithaca, I will purposely alter my route.

That anxiety is defining. It colors everything.

Every job I didn’t get, every grade that wasn’t as high as expected, every first impression, every sidelong glance I have to ask myself, ‘Is it because I’m Black?’

My logical brain knows that most of the time, maybe even all of the time, it’s not. But I have to be on my guard and on my best behavior, because one day, it might.


Best behavior

That’s why we can’t talk about Shawn Greenwood or Keith Shumway or the Kearneys.

In fact, I debated referencing the Kearney family at all. Amelia Kearney, the woman who sued the school, was arrested in 2014 and again in 2015. Her daughter, Epiphany Kearney, who was harassed in school as a seventh grader, was arrested in 2015 as well.

All that should have no bearing on whether or not a fourteen-year-old Epiphany Kearney was pushed and called a nigger by her fellow students in 2007.

It shouldn’t, but for some of you reading this, it does. Because even eight years later, the Kearneys were not on their best behavior, and so they cannot be victims.

The fact that Anthony Nazaire, the Ithaca College student who was stabbed to death in August, was black should not have changed anyone’s reaction to the tragedy, but it did — even for me.

I found myself thinking, “I hope he was a model citizen and student.”

Why? Because it forces everyone to acknowledge that Anthony was a person. It makes him more than a “thug.” For those looking for an excuse, a thug is easy to write off. To them, a Black person with a criminal record is incapable of being more than a thug, another black life that didn’t matter.

Sadly, even though all indications are that he was a good student and an ambitious young man who worked to improve his community who died trying to help and protect others, it didn’t spare him from being labeled a “thug.”

An exchange on Twitter between a Cornell student and a friend the day of Nazaire’s murder. The account has since been set to private.
An exchange on Twitter between a Cornell student and a friend the day of Nazaire’s murder. The account has since been set to private.

So yes, Ithaca has a race problem. It’s not special or noteworthy, but it’s there. Even for those of us who, like me, have been lucky enough to not come face-to-face with it, we see it lurking around the periphery. We feel it.

That is why the people from Black Lives Matter say that it is not enough to not be racist. As long as racism is accepted or written off as “that’s just how they were raised”, people of color can never truly relax.

Turning inward

While the anxiety of racism has lingered since the first time a schoolyard bully hurled a racial slur at me, the rising racial tensions of the last few years have given me something new to be anxious about.

During a Black Lives Matter rally in Ithaca this spring, Cornell professor and organizer Russel Rickford explained the three segments of white America.

The first, he said, were the “overtly, irredeemably racist,” and not worth wasting time on. The third, a tiny sliver of the population, were the true allies of people of color — white people who genuinely hate and fight racism.

“There’s a much larger segment, some of them are gathered right here. A segment of white America that considers itself enlightened,” Rickford said. “They outwardly reject the symbols of white supremacy, yet they aggressively protect their white privilege.”

“Deep in their heart, they despise your blackness more than anything else,” Rickford told the assembled, adding that they, like the first group, were not worth wasting time on.

It might just be due to my unique background, but part of me bristled at that. I’m willing to bet that some of the white people at that rally bristled a little too.

Maybe those people were challenged by those statements and would strive to be like that third type, the true allies.

But I worry about the rest. Those who genuinely mean well but harbor some racist attitudes, maybe even unconsciously. I worry that those who heard or later read Rickford’s comments, will only be pushed away by this kind of rhetoric.

When Black Lives Matter Ithaca talks about defunding IPD and starting their own community police force, when they say people of color can join Black Lives Matter, but there’s another group for white allies (Standing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ), I see a community trying to segregate itself. I find myself wondering how people would react if my fair-skinned, blond-haired daughter would be received if she wanted to join the Black Lives Matter proper.

From an emotional standpoint, the reaction is understandable. It stems from fear the same way that white supremacy stems from fear. That’s why it’s worrisome.

The more that people try and separate themselves along racial lines, the more we will continue to misunderstand and mistrust each other. We cannot combat racism by turning inward and alienating “the other”. Racism thrives on that sort thinking.

Maybe this is just “confused liberal thinking,” as Rickford would call it, but if we really want to fight racism, we have to be willing teach and learn from each other.


(Featured photo: “Parking for Confederates Only” sign, as seen in Newfield, courtesy of The Bentley Farm)

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.