Passengers wait to board the Red Line train at the North Springs MARTA station recently. (DAVID BARNES / DAVID.BARNES@AJC.COM)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

First-person tales on how we experience race on MARTA

Our readers write: This is another installment of Across the Divide, in which the AJC solicits first-person stories from readers in response to the prompt: Talk about a time when you felt like an outsider. Melton Bennett’s observations on race aboard the north-south MARTA train, published two weeks ago, drew a loud and angry reaction, and he has written a follow-up article below. The Across the Divide feature is part of the AJC’s new RE:Race project, which is covering the dramatic racial and ethnic change sweeping Georgia.

Melton Bennett, Cumming

Having been at the center of a storm over the first article he wrote, AJC reader Melton Bennett of Cumming follows up.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Retract, repent or repeat. Those seem to be the options I am faced with after reading the online comments and the articles written about my essay on riding the north-south MARTA train, most notably the ones that appeared in The Root and The Atlanta Black Star.

» Tell us your story 

I felt strongly enough about the subject that I was compelled to write the essay in the first place, even though the thesis seemed to get lost in translation: “Share a time when you felt like an outsider because of race.” I was candid and honest in my writing, vulnerable enough to expose biases at play, not only mine but the ones I have recognized on the faces of other white passengers. It was meant to convey empathy and compassion while exposing the ugly warts in a sincere hope that it would be received as a starting point for a dialogue.

In the hundreds of comments I read and in the many direct messages via Facebook, not a single person invited me to take part in a dialogue about race. Instead, I sifted through messages laced with vitriol and condemnation and was labeled a racist by some and even more vile, despicable things by others. From some came an opposing message: you said what so many of us think and are too afraid to say. Thank you. It is a true reflection of the racial divide that exists.

The cynical side of me wondered whether there is a place at the table for white people to have a candid, honest conversation about race. Based on the feedback and noise, I will say I am not sure. That saddens me.

The naïve side of me wonders how my essay could be so taken out of context, disjointed from the intent. Should I have more carefully separated the behavior I observed from the race of the people I observed on MARTA during an isolated train ride? Resoundingly, yes. Unfair and biased? Yes. Does that make me a racist? No. I did not and do not seek to oppress anyone.

» Interactive: Watch racial change unfold in Georgia

I try to conduct myself with compassion and kindness. I take great pride in being a valued part of my local community. I strive to be a good partner, a good son, a good friend and an upstanding citizen. I fail at times. I succeed at others. I am often passionate and I am sometimes ignorant, and at all times fallible. I can be called many, many things — good and bad — but racist is not one of them.

If there is indeed a place at the table to freely, openly and honestly discuss race in Atlanta and in America, I am open to the invitation. I’ve much to learn about African-American perspectives on the subject, and I am open to an evolution in my own. Name calling and social media bashing will change nothing. Perspectives evolve with conversation that is laced with compassion and a deep desire to understand the pain and plight of another. That must come from both sides. A bridge cannot be built from only one side of the ravine.

I’ve been advised to let this go, that no good will come of my trying to engage any further. I don’t believe that. If I can foster even the slightest amount of dialogue that can lead to a positive change in someone’s perspective, mine included, then I should and must try. For me, it is a moral obligation.

Christopher Cook.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Christopher Cook, Riverdale

I am a MARTA employee of five years and have been riding the train here for that same amount of time. Riding the train has been a benefit for me as I used to work off Powers Ferry with no real option but to drive in daily from Jonesboro — a painful commute. Now it is an everyday thing.

I feel like an outsider at times from both my fellow African-Americans and many of the riders coming out of the Red Line stations. I feel out of place sometimes because it seems that the people of other ethnicities are afraid of a black male no matter whether they are professionally dressed or have a more rugged appearance.

I also feel out of place when I head south of Five Points, as many patrons from that point are loud, boisterous and display a lack of respect for other patrons.

The only issue is, many of those rambunctious riders look like me, only younger and in better shape. I am sometimes ashamed, because the first thought in my head is, “I hope my son does not behave like this when he is with his friends.”

I mostly want to have a talk with them and explain that it is best to tone their conversations down and limit the profanity. With all of that said, I have been riding the train for a little over five years and love the relief from traffic, and enjoy people watching.

It is not as bad as people make it seem. Incidents are limited and there are some wonderful impromptu conversations as well.

Emily Walters Laney, with her dog Biscuit.
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Emily Walters Laney, Smyrna

I am a white female in her early 30s and a metro Atlanta resident my entire life. I’d like to recount my own experience riding MARTA to the airport one day.

I get on the train at the Medical Center station in Sandy Springs. Boarding the train with me are several people headed to the airport, many of whom are clearly leaving work at one of the hospitals in the area. I sit with my suitcase in between my legs, leaving space for someone to sit next to me.

An African-American woman gets on at the Buckhead station, her toddler in an umbrella stroller. A group of high school students of several races wearing khakis and polo shirts gets on at Midtown. I recall that my suburban parents would have never let me ride MARTA alone or with friends. But clearly it’s working well for these students.

As we get to Five Points station, the composition of the train changes: More African-American riders are heading south, but it still seems pretty diverse. A middle-aged African-American man sits next to me. We end up having a great conversation about life and politics. We have similar views. Across the aisle, a few young African-American men are listening to music on their headphones. A few others are standing and talking; several more are engrossed in books or on their phones.

Do I feel out of place on the MARTA train as we pass through the neighborhoods south of Atlanta? Not at all. We are all people, and our differences make us stronger. I always find it interesting when other people recount different experiences on MARTA, because my several hundred rides on the train have been pretty similar to what I described above.

Atlanta is a segregated city and there are many problems we need to face and work together to resolve. Systemic poverty and institutional racism are significant issues in our city and country, but making assumptions or broad statements about people who are not like us will not help us move forward.

» The AJC covers racial and ethnic change in Georgia

I was confronted with my own racial bias nearly 10 years ago. When a young African-American man walked closer to me in a shopping center parking lot, I instinctively moved my purse to the other side of my body. He noticed and told me that he wasn’t going to bother me. That experience was a wakeup call for me, and I have been working ever since to understand where that behavior comes from and how I can work to create change.

I still am heartbroken to this day that I treated that young man in that way, and that he noticed – likely because it had happened to him before. As a result, I’ve been involved in racial reconciliation groups in person and on social media, and I cherish my relationships with people from different backgrounds. I’ve stepped outside of my comfort zone and preconceived ideas about race and people who are different from me, and I’ve had those tough conversations where I’ve confronted my own privilege and bias.

It wasn’t the most comfortable thing to do at first, but now it’s become almost second nature to me, and I wouldn’t want to live my life any other way.

Note: Comments on this feature are being moderated by AJC editors.

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