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TEDxColumbus

James A. White Sr.: The little problem I had renting a house

November 7, 2014

Fifty-three years ago, James A. White Sr. joined the US Air Force. But as an African American man, he had to go to shocking lengths to find a place for his young family to live nearby. He tells this powerful story about the lived experience of "everyday racism" -- and how it echoes today in the way he's had to teach his grandchildren to interact with police.

James A. White Sr. - Consultant
James A. White Sr. believes that every person and organization has incredible potential. He works to help them understand it — and communicate it to others. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
An 18-year-old, African-American male
joined the United States Air Force
00:12
and was assigned to Mountain Home
Air Force Base
00:18
and was a part of the air police squadron.
00:21
Upon first arriving there,
the first goal that I had
00:24
was for me to identify an apartment,
00:27
so I could bring my wife
and my new baby, Melanie,
00:30
out to join me in Idaho.
00:34
I immediately went to
the personnel office,
00:36
and talking with the guys in personnel,
00:39
they said, "Hey, no problem finding
an apartment in Mountain Home, Idaho.
00:40
The people down there love us
because they know if they have an airman
00:46
who is coming in to rent
one of their apartments,
00:51
they'll always get their money."
00:53
And that was a really important thing.
00:56
He said, "So here is a list
of people that you can call,
00:57
and then they will then allow you
to select the apartment that you want."
01:00
So I got the list; I made the call.
01:04
The lady answered on the other end
and I told her what I wanted.
01:07
She said, "Oh, great you called.
01:10
We have four or five apartments
available right now."
01:12
She said, "Do you want
a one-bedroom or two-bedroom?"
01:16
Then she said, "Let's not talk about that.
01:19
Just come on down,
select the apartment that you want.
01:21
We'll sign the contract
01:24
and you'll have keys in your hand
to get your family out here right away."
01:26
So I was excited.
01:30
I jumped in my car. I went downtown
and knocked on the door.
01:32
When I knocked on the door,
the woman came to the door,
01:35
and she looked at me, and she said,
"Can I help you?"
01:38
I said, "Yes, I'm the person
who called about the apartments.
01:41
I was just coming down
to make my selection."
01:44
She said, "You know what?
I'm really sorry,
01:47
but my husband rented those apartments
and didn't tell me about them."
01:49
I said, "You mean he rented
all five of them in one hour?"
01:53
She didn't give me a response,
and what she said was this:
01:58
She said, "Why don't you
leave your number,
02:02
and if we have some openings,
I'll give you a call?"
02:04
Needless to say,
I did not get a call from her.
02:07
Nor did I get any responses
from the other people
02:10
that they gave me on the list
where I could get apartments.
02:14
So as a result of that,
and feeling rejected,
02:17
I went back to the base, and I talked
to the squadron commander.
02:19
His name was McDow, Major McDow.
02:23
I said, "Major McDow, I need your help."
02:26
I told him what happened,
and here's what he said to me:
02:28
He said, "James, I would love to help you.
02:30
But you know the problem:
02:33
We can't make people rent to folks
that they don't want to rent to.
02:35
And besides, we have a great relationship
with people in the community
02:39
and we really don't want to damage that."
02:43
He said, "So maybe this is
what you should do.
02:45
Why don't you let your family stay home,
02:48
because you do know
that you get a 30-day leave.
02:50
So once a year,
02:53
you can go home to your family,
spend 30 days and then come on back."
02:55
Needless to say, that didn't
resonate for me.
02:59
So after leaving him,
I went back to personnel,
03:01
and talking to the clerk,
03:04
he said, "Jim, I think I have a
solution for you.
03:06
There's an airman who is leaving
and he has a trailer.
03:09
If you noticed, in Mountain Home,
03:13
there are trailer parks and trailers
all over the place.
03:15
You can buy his trailer,
and you'd probably get a really good deal
03:17
because he wants to get out of town
as soon as possible.
03:21
And that would take care of your problem,
03:24
and that would provide
the solution for you."
03:26
So I immediately jumped in my car,
went downtown, saw the trailer --
03:28
it was a small trailer,
03:31
but under the circumstances,
03:33
I figured that was the
best thing that I could do.
03:34
So I bought the trailer.
03:37
And then I asked him,
"Can I just leave the trailer here,
03:38
and that would take care
of all my problems,
03:42
I wouldn't have to find
another trailer park?"
03:44
He said, "Before I say yes to that,
I need to check with management."
03:46
So I get back to the base,
03:50
he called me back and management said,
03:51
"No, you can't leave the trailer here
03:53
because we had promised that slot
to some other people."
03:56
And that was strange to me
03:59
because there were several
other slots that were open,
04:01
but it just so happened that he
had promised that slot to someone else.
04:04
So, what I did --
04:08
and he said, "You shouldn't worry, Jim,
because there are a lot of trailer parks."
04:09
So I put out another exhaustive list
of going to trailer parks.
04:13
I went to one after another,
after another.
04:17
And I got the same kind of rejection there
04:19
that I received when I was looking
for the apartment.
04:21
And as a result, the kind of comments
that they made to me,
04:26
in addition to saying that they
didn't have any slots open,
04:30
one person said, "Jim, the reason
why we can't rent to you,
04:34
we already have a Negro family
in the trailer park."
04:38
He said, "And it's not me,
because I like you people."
04:43
(Laughs)
04:47
And that's what I did, too.
I chuckled, too.
04:48
He said, "But here's the problem:
04:52
If I let you in, the other tenants
will move out
04:54
and I can't afford to take
that kind of a hit."
04:58
He said, "I just can't rent to you."
05:01
Even though that was discouraging,
it didn't stop me.
05:03
I kept looking,
05:06
and I looked at the far end
of the town in Mountain Home,
05:07
and there was a small trailer park.
05:12
I mean, a really small trailer park.
05:14
It didn't have any paved roads in it,
05:16
it didn't have the concrete slabs,
05:18
it didn't have fencing
05:20
to portion off your trailer slot
from other trailer slots.
05:21
It didn't have a laundry facility.
05:24
But the conclusion I reached
at that moment
05:26
was that I didn't have
a lot of other options.
05:28
So I called my wife, and I said,
"We're going to make this one work."
05:31
And we moved into it
05:34
and we became homeowners
in Mountain Home, Idaho.
05:36
And of course, eventually
things settled down.
05:39
Four years after that, I received papers
to move from Mountain Home, Idaho
05:44
to a place called Goose Bay, Labrador.
05:50
We won't even talk about that.
It was another great location. (Laughter)
05:53
So my challenge then was to get my family
from Mountain Home, Idaho
05:57
to Sharon, Pennsylvania.
06:01
That wasn't a problem because we
had just purchased a brand-new automobile.
06:03
My mother called
and said she'll fly out.
06:06
She'll be with us as we drive,
she'll help us manage the children.
06:09
So she came out, her and Alice
put a lot of food together for the trip.
06:13
That morning, we left at about 5 a.m.
06:17
Great trip, having a great time,
good conversation.
06:20
Somewhere around 6:30, 7 o'clock,
we got a little bit tired,
06:23
and we said, "Why don't we get
a motel so that we can rest
06:27
and then have an early start
in the morning?"
06:30
So we were looking at a number
of the motels as we drove down the road,
06:32
and we saw one, it was a great
big, bright flashing light that said,
06:36
"Vacancies, Vacancies, Vacanies."
06:39
So we stopped in.
06:42
They were in the parking lot,
I went inside.
06:43
When I walked inside,
06:45
the lady was just finishing up
one contract with some folks,
06:46
some other people
were coming in behind me.
06:50
And so I walked to the counter,
06:52
and she said, "How can I help you?"
06:53
I said, "I would like to get a motel
for the evening for my family."
06:56
She said, "You know, I'm really sorry,
I just rented the last one.
06:59
We will not have any more
until the morning."
07:03
She said, "But if you go down the road
about an hour, 45 minutes,
07:06
there's another trailer park down there."
07:10
I said, "Yeah, but you still have the
'Vacancies' light on, and it's flashing."
07:12
She said, "Oh, I forgot."
07:16
And she reached over
and turned the light off.
07:18
She looked at me and I looked at her.
07:20
There were other people in the room.
07:22
She kind of looked at them.
No one said anything.
07:24
So I just got the hint and I left,
and went outside to the parking lot.
07:26
And I told my mother and I told my wife
and also Melanie, and I said,
07:30
"It looks like we're going to have to
drive a little bit further down the road
07:34
to be able to sleep tonight."
07:38
And we did drive down the road,
07:40
but just before we took off
and pulled out of the parking lot,
07:42
guess what happened?
07:46
The light came back on.
07:47
And it said, "Vacancies,
Vacancies, Vacancies."
07:49
We were able to find a nice place.
07:52
It wasn't our preference,
but it was secure and it was clean.
07:54
And so we had a great sleep that night.
07:59
The piece that's important about that
08:02
is that we had similar
kinds of experiences
08:04
from Idaho all the way through
to Pennsylvania,
08:07
where we were rejected from hotels,
motels and restaurants.
08:10
But we made it to Pennsylvania.
08:14
We got the family settled.
Everyone was glad to see the kids.
08:16
I jumped on a plane and shot off
to Goose Bay, Labrador,
08:21
which is another story, right?
08:26
(Laughter)
08:27
Here it is, 53 years later,
08:30
I now have nine grandchildren,
two great-grandchildren.
08:34
Five of the grandchildren are boys.
08:38
I have master's, Ph.D., undergrad,
one in medical school.
08:41
I have a couple that are trending.
08:46
They're almost there but not quite.
(Laughter)
08:49
I have one who has been
in college now for eight years.
08:52
(Laughter)
08:55
He doesn't have a degree yet,
but he wants to be a comedian.
08:56
So we're just trying to get him
to stay in school.
09:00
Because you never know,
09:03
just because you're funny at home,
does not make you a comedian, right?
09:04
(Laughter)
09:08
But the thing about it,
they're all good kids --
09:10
no drugs, no babies
in high school, no crime.
09:12
So with that being the backdrop,
09:17
I was sitting in my TV room watching TV,
09:19
and they were talking about Ferguson
and all the hullabaloo that was going on.
09:21
And all of a sudden, one of the news
commentators got on the air and she said,
09:26
"In the last three months,
09:31
eight unarmed African-American males
09:34
have been killed by police,
white homeowners, or white citizens."
09:38
For some reason, at that moment
it just all hit me.
09:46
I said, "What is it? It is so insane.
09:49
What is the hatred that's causing people
to do these kinds of things?"
09:53
Just then, one of my grandsons called.
09:58
He said, "Granddad, did you hear
what they said on TV?"
10:00
I said, "Yes, I did."
10:04
He said, "I'm just so confused.
10:05
We do everything we do,
but it seems that driving while black,
10:07
walking while black, talking while black,
it's just dangerous.
10:11
What can we do? We do everything
that you told us to do.
10:16
When stopped by the police,
10:21
we place both hands on the steering wheel
at the 12 o'clock position.
10:22
If asked to get identification,
10:26
we tell them, 'I am slowly reaching over
into the glove compartment to get my I.D.'
10:29
When pulled out of the car to be searched,
10:35
when laid on the ground to be searched,
10:38
when our trunks are opened to be searched,
10:40
we don't push back, we don't challenge
because we know, you've told us,
10:42
'Don't you challenge the police.
10:46
After it's over, call us and we'll
be the ones to challenge."
10:48
He said, "And this is the piece
that really bugs me:
10:52
Our white friends, our buddies,
we kind of hang together.
10:55
When they hear about these kinds
of things happening to us, they say,
10:58
'Why do you take it?
11:02
You need to push back.
You need to challenge.
11:04
You need to ask them
for their identification.'"
11:07
And here's what the boys have been
taught to tell them:
11:09
"We know that you can do that,
but please do not do that
11:12
while we're in the car
11:15
because the consequences for you
are significantly different
11:17
than the consequences for us."
11:21
And so as a grandparent,
what do I tell my grandsons?
11:23
How do I keep them safe?
How do I keep them alive?
11:27
As a result of this, people have
come to me and said,
11:30
"Jim, are you angry?"
11:33
And my response to that is this:
11:37
"I don't have the luxury of being angry,
11:40
and I also know the consequences
of being enraged."
11:45
So therefore, the only thing that I can do
11:50
is take my collective intellect and my
energy and my ideas and my experiences
11:52
and dedicate myself to challenge,
at any point in time,
11:59
anything that looks
like it might be racist.
12:03
So the first thing I have
to do is to educate,
12:06
the second thing I have to do
is to unveil racism,
12:08
and the last thing I need to do
is do everything within my power
12:12
to eradicate racism in my lifetime
by any means necessary.
12:15
The second thing I do is this:
12:22
I want to appeal to Americans.
12:25
I want to appeal to their humanity,
to their dignity,
12:28
to their civic pride and ownership
12:33
to be able to not react to these
heinous crimes in an adverse manner.
12:37
But instead, to elevate your level
of societal knowledge,
12:45
your level of societal awareness
and societal consciousness
12:51
to then collectively come together,
all of us come together,
12:56
to make sure that we speak out against
and we challenge any kind of insanity,
13:00
any kind of insanity that makes it
okay to kill unarmed people,
13:07
regardless of their ethnicity,
13:14
regardless of their race,
13:17
regardless of their diversity makeup.
13:19
We have to challenge that.
It doesn't make any sense.
13:21
The only way I think we can do that
is through a collective.
13:25
We need to have black and white
and Asian and Hispanic
13:28
just to step forward and say,
13:32
"We are not going to accept
that kind of behavior anymore."
13:34

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James A. White Sr. - Consultant
James A. White Sr. believes that every person and organization has incredible potential. He works to help them understand it — and communicate it to others.

Why you should listen

James A. White Sr. is an executive coach and management consultant. The owner and president of Performance Consulting Services in Columbus, Ohio, he helps individuals, groups and organizations recognize their potential, fine-tune their strategic messages and present them effectively.

James is dedicated to sharing his energy, passion and insight into how to overcome life’s obstacles with others. As a dyslexic student in the inner city, he dropped out of high school — and after getting his G.E.D. jumpstarted his career by joining the U.S. Air Force. He went on to positions at Xerox, Wang Laboratories and Digital Equipment Corporation and has spent the past 25 as a consultant and educator. He also aims to share his experiences of racism in order to stress the message that all races, genders and backgrounds must come together to challenge the status quo.

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