People Can Surprise You

And now for something completely different…Last week we bought a new car. We said goodbye to our trusty 1999 Subaru with 150,000 miles on the clock and downsized to something more fuel efficient (since this column is commercial free I will refrain for mentioning the model).

But this blog is not about cars but about the conversation that took place at the dealership. As my wife and I were filling out paperwork, the finance manger, who I will call Bill, commented, “I see that you saved your Obama sticker. I am with you on that.”  This took me by surprise because at first glance I’d pegged him as a typical middle-aged white conservative. Then he asked, “What do you do?” I said, “I work with Initiatives of Change. It’s a network of people committed to building trust across racial, religious, class and other divides, and our main project here in Richmond is around racial dialogue and reconciliation.”

This led to an unexpected and prolonged conversation. Bill was born in the western part of the state. His parents had racist attitudes that were the norm of the time and used the “N-word” frequently. But he had come to a different world view.

He said that many of his peers send him emails with racial overtones criticizing the president’s handling of the economy – even the rescue of the motor industry. He tells them, “You’re crazy, he saved your jobs!” Looking around the showroom full of serious buyers that Saturday morning he remarked, “We are seeing a real uptick in business.”   

Then he said, “Tell me, where you think we are at in race relations today?” “Well,” I said, “they’re a whole lot better than when we arrived in Richmond in 1980. People are much more willing to engage in dialogue.”

Bill told us that his seven-year-old son plays on a soccer team. At one game recently one team was all-black and the other all-white, reflecting the reality of many of our schools. On the way back from the game his son exclaimed, “Dad, it was real easy to tell who was on each side!” He said this without attaching any racial meaning to the fact and Bill felt good about that.  

The young salesman who actually sold us the car was African American.  As we left I handed him a copy of my book, Trustbuilding. He said, “That’s interesting. My family is bi-racial.” Turned out his wife had a Jamaican Muslim father and a Jewish mother. When I came back the next day to complete some paperwork he said, “I have already read the first chapter.”

I left that car showroom feeling better about the country, and I don’t intend this as a political statement. I tell this story to remind myself not to make snap judgments about people. And that there’s more good and more hope around than you might think.