Black Like Me


John Howard Griffin

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Black Like Me: November 10-12, 1959 Summary & Analysis

For the next two days, Griffin spends his time trying—unsuccessfully—to find work. Discouraged by his prospects, he speaks to the old man who owns the café at the Y, who says that his inability to find work is because of a larger “pattern” of “economic injustice.” The owner says that while a white boy has the incentive to go to college since he “knows he can make good money in any profession when he gets out,” it’s not the same for black people, especially in the South, who can do well in college and still end up with only “the most menial work.” Going on, he says that a black man will never earn enough money to stay financially afloat in America.
The café owner urges Griffin to see the difficulties that black people face as instances of systemic racism. Highlighting the fact that there is a “pattern” of “economic injustice,” he suggests that young black Americans don’t have a good “incentive” to achieve academic success, since it’s overwhelmingly apparent that it’s nearly impossible to get good, high-paying jobs in the South, even with a college degree. In this way, segregationists make it even harder for African Americans to attain upward mobility.
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Going on, the owner says that black people can’t afford an education “ or else they know education won’t earn them the jobs it would a white man.” As such, “a lot of them, without even understanding the cause, just give up. They take what they can—mostly in pleasure, and they make the grand gesture, the wild gesture, because what have they got to lose if they do die in a car wreck or a knife fight or something else equally stupid?” This, he upholds, is a “vicious circle,” especially because white people point to this “wild gesture” as evidence of the fact that African Americans are “not worthy of first-class citizenship.” “They put us low, and then blame us for being down there and say that since we are low, we can’t deserve our rights,” the owner says.
What the café owner describes in this scene is how disenfranchisement and injustice easily become cyclical. Because young black people don’t have the resources to achieve any kind of upward mobility, the owner upholds, they find themselves wanting to make a “grand gesture,” which is often “wild” and reckless. Indeed, these “gesture[s]” are how many people cope with hopelessness. Unfortunately, though, white society uses these “gestures” as examples of why African Americans don’t “deserve” “rights”—a terrible, incredibly bigoted notion that fails to take into account the fact that the true cause of such behavior is racism. As such, if African Americans were granted their “rights” in the first place, there would be no need to “make the grand gesture.”
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Griffin wonders aloud what might help people see beyond the hateful messages promoted by racists. “I read recently where one of [these racist groups] said that equality of education and job opportunity would be an even greater tragedy for us,” he says. “He said it would quickly prove to us that we can’t measure up—disillusion us by showing us that we are, in fact, inferior.” The café owner adds that racists often accuse people who believe in equality of being communists. “We’ve reached a poor state when people are afraid that doing the decent and right thing is going to help the communist conspiracy,” he says. “I’m sure a lot of people are held back just on that point.” After leaving the café, Griffin identifies “a double problem for “African Americans,” realizing that black people are subject to “discrimination” by white people and by other black people.
Part of what enables many white Americans to justify their passive racism is that they tell themselves lies about the ways in which black people perceive their own oppression. Indeed, they make claims that equality would be a “tragedy” for African Americans because it would show them their own inferiority. Of course, this viewpoint is rooted in bigotry, since it assumes that there is a fundamental difference between white and black people. This is why Griffin has decided to disguise himself as a black man, ultimately hoping to speak to African Americans and help debunk the notion that black people are content with the way things are. On another note, the café owner addresses the unfortunate fact that racists have conflated equality with communism, since this enables segregationists to align racial justice with a political viewpoint that has been demonized in America.
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