Empty Seat Next to Me? I Wish!

Some black people report that they encounter racism all the time. Some of us have a different experience.

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By John McWhorter

I am mystified by John Edgar Wideman's account in The New York Times about how people on the Amtrak Acela train don't take the seat next to him until it's practically the only seat left. I am mystified not because I haven't heard plenty of claims of this kind. I am mystified because nothing of the sort happens to me.

Note: I am not questioning Wideman's experience -- which is what makes accounts like this such a challenge for me to wrap my head around. In my book Winning the Race, I devote a chapter to this type of thing -- of the sort that motivated Ellis Cose's classic Rage of a Privileged Class. It was the hardest chapter I have ever written.

Quite simply: Over the past nine years, I have ridden the Acela up and down the corridor from Boston to Washington, D.C., quite often. Like Wideman, I also prefer the quiet car, and thus our experiences are that much more equivalent. On top of this, I am always on the lookout for the kind of "subtly racist" experience that even middle-class black people, especially men, of unthreatening appearance are supposed to have, as what one of Cose's interviewees termed a "daily litany" of slights.

But Wideman's Acela experience is simply not mine. On the contrary, because, like Wideman, I kind of enjoy having that empty seat to put my bag and food containers on, there have been many times when someone has sat next to me when the train was nowhere near full and I have grumbled to myself, "Why next to me out of all these other empty seats?"

This is the truth. It is based on several dozen Acela trips. It is based on my own experience in my own black skin. And there is nothing I do to invite company on the train; I almost always have my nose buried in a book or newspaper.

Important: I most certainly did have Wideman's experience in the past. In the '70s and well into the '80s when I was a teenager, I would often take the PATCO train between Philadelphia and New Jersey. I quickly noticed -- and without being primed by other people talking about it, and not yet keyed into literature on the subject -- that whites wouldn't sit next to me unless the seat next to me was the last one, or close to it. And I most certainly did not look "threatening" -- I was Urkel squared.

So I do know my racism when I see it. But I have thought of the change in my train-travel experience as evidence that America is moving on. I first noticed the change in the early '90s in California when I would often take trains and buses to and from San Francisco. So it sincerely challenges me to read an account like Wideman's. Why him and not me? Note -- I accept the "him" part. But the "me" part must also be accepted. I am telling the truth, and my glasses are not so rose-colored that that I cannot perceive discrimination unless somebody is burning a cross in front of my house.


And when I step off the curb and raise my arm for a taxi in New York, one stops. In eight years of New York life, I have been waiting to be bypassed by a taxi -- I almost yearn for it because it is presented as a kind of rite of passage for black men in New York. It has never happened, anywhere in town -- ever.