Black in America From In Front Of The TV Camera: My Friend Steve’s Story

Thirty six years ago, I met Steve Pickett. We started out in the TV new business together in small-market Wichita Falls, TX. He’s now a TV reporter and anchor in Dallas, but we’ve stayed close. He was in my wedding. I was in his.

Steve is African American. His race made his personal and professional path much more difficult than mine. Along the way he’s made a big difference in the lives of so many people. I asked him to write about race and our friendship. I hope it helps all of us understand at this historic time in our country. Here’s his message. It blew me away.

Me, Steve and Kristine at my 60th birthday last year. Steve came up from Texas to celebrate with me.

Steve’s Story

When we both walk into a room, I’m black. Yes, I said it. And its true even today.

I’m not stating the obvious, based on skin color. I’m stating the condition of culture in American life, and the constant contradiction of Martin Luther King’s wish for his children to live in a nation “where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character”

The infection of racism is so pervasive in our lives that the victims learn to accept forms of it, are conditioned to expect it, and the perpetuators are historically rewarded by it.

The examples are many, but let’s just use our lives side by side to cite the easy ones.

Has anyone ever said to you, “I’d love to hire you, but I don’t trust white people”? As a high school and college student, I worked part time retail jobs. There’s a “help wanted” sign in the display window of a men’s clothing shop. The manager greets 19-year-old me, reviews my typed resume’, and compliments my professionalism at such a young age. The man then says, “I’d love to hire you, but I don’t trust black people. I’ve had some steal from me before.” My response: ” I’m sorry that happened, but what does that have to do with me?”

That man didn’t see me. He saw Black. Worse than that, he defined blackness for himself, and used his power to paint prejudice with a broad brush.

As a journalist I’m in the middle of what’s going on in our country right now when it comes to the crisis of race. I was covering a protest for my station KTVT when my photographer and I were hit with tear gas:

I’ve seen the difference between black and white my entire life, even in celebratory moments.

Marty and I became friends in 1984 when I was hired as a reporter for the NBC affiliate in Wichita Falls, TX. Back then, I received a call from a former colleague about the job opportunity. “Hey, are you interested in a news reporting position we have?” he asked. “Absolutely!” was my response. “Great, our black guy is leaving, and my News Director is looking for another one,” he said. The ingrained, systemic bias against people of color is so intertwined into American life, we don’t recognize it, even when it seems like we’re trying to rectify it.

I’m willing to bet no one has ever said to you, “Hey, our white guy is leaving, and we’re looking for another one”. Sure, I’m certain I’ve gotten an opportunity because a company wanted to diversify its newsroom.

But sadly, diversity often means one of me for every ten of you. The standard is white. The exception is black.

We all saw the woman with the dog in Central Park, who calls police, claiming a black man is threatening her. That’s called White Privilege caught on camera.

It took me back to college days in 1982. I worked with a nice young lady. We went out on a couple of dates. Yes, she’s white. One day, I knock on her dorm door for a surprise visit. To my surprise, she pretended not to know me. The other girls visiting her were her sorority sisters. They called campus police. 35 years later, the woman calls me. She saw me on TV. She’s so proud of me. She voted for Obama, and she’s so sorry about calling the police back then, but she couldn’t let her friends know she’d been with a black guy.

The psychosis of race-based value of people in American life is so much a part of our lives, black people like me expect it, even when its not present. In 2003, when a white neighbor asked me if I was interested in meeting her daughter, I was shocked. I didn’t expect her to value me as an individual. She did.

That’s another difference for you and me. You don’t anticipate trouble based solely on your skin color. Based on my experience, I prepare for it.

Remember, Marty, when a mutual friend of ours admitted he limited black patrons in his bar? They didn’t purchase as much alcohol, and their presence alienated white customer patronage, he said. I don’t think you ever worried about admission to a public place, based on your race.

My son was hanging out with his friends in Uptown Dallas one night. All were ID’ed at the door. All were allowed in…. except my son. The doorman said his clothing was too casual, based on the bar’s dress code. His friends were white. And they knew there was no difference in their attire, compared to my son’s.

It was my son’s first dive into the pool of prejudice unfiltered. I warned him about it. Now, he too knows it can creep around any corner.

I like to say “black is not a color, its a condition”. It’s a valuation.

People define school quality based on racial composition. People cite real estate values, based on race-worry about the neighborhood becoming “too dark”, as someone posted on their Facebook page, apparently forgetting or not caring that I was one of their FB Friends. And sadly, people still teach children to choose, based on race.

My headshot from the KTVT website. I’m proud of the stories I’ve covered, from education reform, to reporting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In a workplace debate one day over race, I asked a white coworker: “How much money would it take for you to live as a black person?” As he pondered, I said, “Stop. Your silence gave me the answer.”

Trying to calculate a price of what it would be like to be black tells me how much you understand the value of being white. If we’re equal, you wouldn’t need a penny.

Our American legacy is latched to the code of color. European immigrants quickly learned: being Italian, Irish, British, French, Polish or Spanish is about ethnic pride. But being white is about power. It’s so pervasive, some Cubans, Dominicans and other descendants of slaves from Latin and Caribbean nations defined themselves as white when emigrating to the U.S.

Marty, you and I have a decades long brotherhood, based on choice. Neither is perfect. Both are carved by influence, upbringing, love and hard work. We have never avoided the issue of race. We don’t always agree. But we chose to value and respect each other. That’s special, because for many African Americans, value and respect rarely supersedes the prerequisite of race bias.

I actually want people to see color, but to view it as an asset, not a liability. That’s what I mean, when I say, “When we both walk into a room, I’m black.” It means they see you — but never see me.

About Marty Griffin
Marty is a past recipient of three prestigious Regional Emmys for Outstanding Investigative Reporting and also won a Broadcast Achievement Award for an undercover story about Michael Irvin and the Dallas Cowboys. He was named the Best Talk Show Host in Pittsburgh in 2008 for the Pittsburgh Achievement in Radio Awards. Marty shakes things up weekdays 9 am to noon on KDKA Radio.

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