SEVERAL YEARS AGO, the Fridays moved from Sudbury, Massachusetts, to the Main Line, selecting the neighborhood mainly for its blue-ribbon public schools. They enrolled their sons at Tredyffrin/Easttown Middle School, where they learned lessons outside the core curriculum. Anita Friday only discovered how difficult a time her sons had in school after they were asked to write an essay on the topic of tolerance.
“It was a social-studies course,” remembers Joshua, “and we had just been studying Alabama [and the civil rights movement there]. We were supposed to write about whether or not we’d progressed and whether or not America is an accepting society.”
The Friday boys were in separate classrooms, navigating the same seventh-grade curriculum. They never discussed the assignment, yet both offered the same assessment. “My personal experiences as an African-American are extremely outrageous,” wrote Joshua Friday, “and kids think it’s just what I should be used to.”
“I myself am a victim of those intolerant people who say things because of my skin color,” wrote Jordan Friday. “They call me names, or whenever we read or talk about Africa they laugh and point at me. … The N word is commonly thrown around … even though there is literally nothing different about us except our skin color.”
The boys had found that their white classmates expected them to conform to every stereotype — to love rap music, say “yo,” be good at basketball and struggle with classwork. When Joshua made the basketball team, his white classmates shrugged. “Of course you did,” they told him. “You’re black.”
“I had almost no pride in the achievement,” Joshua wrote in his school essay.
Just a few days before the Fridays turned in their essays, in fact, Joshua heard a bunch of kids laughing at a joke he’d missed. Innocently, he asked them to repeat it.
“You don’t want to know,” one of the boys told him.
Joshua considered the boy a friend. And he figured from this response that the joke must have been racist.
“Tell me,” he insisted.
“Why are black people afraid of chain saws?” the kid asked.
“Because,” the kid answered, revving up his voice, “they say runnn-niggerr-rrruuuunnnn!”
We could talk about a 15-year-old incident that has left scars in Lower Merion and in the nation — the controversial, fatal police shooting of Erin Forbes, the son of a microbiologist and a Temple University African-American studies professor. Forbes was 26 and employed, and had no criminal record. Lower Merion police claimed Forbes behaved irrationally in January 2000, allegedly robbing a convenience store and advancing on the officer who shot him wielding a walking stick.
I could tell you about Muneera Walker, a 53-year-old African-American general contractor who was driving along winding, dangerous Mill Creek Road in Gladwyne when a car behind her raced up to her bumper. The car drew perilously close in her rearview mirror, dropped back, then surged forward again, as if urging Walker to hit the gas. She could see the driver, a young white woman around 20 years old, in her rearview mirror.
This was a balmy day last August. Both drivers had their windows rolled down, and as Walker maintained her speed, around 30 mph, she reached one hand out her driver’s-side window, urging the young woman to slow down.
The next thing she knew, the young woman leaned, head and shoulders, out her window, waving her cell phone in one hand and steering with the other. “Look at this!” she yelled. “I’m going to call the police. You know they’ll get you! Get your black ass back to Philadelphia where you belong!”
What hurt Walker most is that all her experience told her the woman was right. If the police came and questioned them both, they’d be more likely to believe the young woman. Walker’s own son had recently been ordered out of a local convenience store because, Walker told me, he “looked like some other black kid” who caused trouble there and the staff wasn’t interested in hearing him out.
“It spans the generations,” Walker says. “You look at how far we’ve progressed and you realize the further we get, the clearer it is that we really haven’t gotten anywhere. And as a parent, I know my children will face these things. Because I face them.”