The Divided States of Fear: A Conversation on Race and Violence

Guest Writer: Stephen J. Lyons; Illinois

When the four young African Americans approached us on Chicago’s Red Line subway, feelings I had long forgotten came rushing back. 

It was midafternoon on a weekday. We were checking off an item on my wife’s Chicago Bucket List: to ride the elevated, aka the “L.” 

My wife was raised on a farm in central Illinois. I was raised on the South Side of Chicago, but left forty years ago to live in much smaller towns in the West.

The group of African Americans who approached us was raising money for its basketball team. Allegedly. If we could not give cash, we were urged to sign our names on a blank sheet of paper—never a good idea. 

Panhandling is illegal on the Chicago Transit Authority’s buses and subways, but the law is widely ignored. Security of any kind on the L is spotty at best. You are on your own each time you step into a subway car. I have always thought that entering that 48-by-9-foot space is like spinning a roulette wheel. Most of the time you will break even, but eventually the house will win. 

Such was the case when, in eighth grade, I was on the same Red Line, sandwiched in against a window during rush hour while a white businessman stroked the inside of my leg, his clammy hand hidden beneath a briefcase. 


Two of the guys that surrounded my wife and me were school age boys; yet, here they were in the middle of a weekday involved in an obvious scam. 

I was overcome with emotions—fear the most prevalent. Fear of becoming “prey” in a trapped environment. Fear of violence if I refused to give money. 

But my main feeling was this: If any of these men laid one hand on my wife I would fight until my last breath defending her.

Yes, I am white, but before you toss the “R” word my way, I want to share the roots of my apprehension. 

I was in fifth grade living with my mom, a single mother, in Chicago’s integrated South Side Hyde Park neighborhood. Throughout my young life my mother never said a discouraging word against any group. She called me to watch television when civil rights marches were on the evening news, explaining both the reasons for the protests andthe addled reasoning for the subsequent violence against the demonstrators. She also pointed with pride that my birthday, December 1, 1955, was the same day that Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat to a white patron during that legendary bus ride in Montgomery, Alabama. 

Some might say I was a naive 10-year-old, but I had never been given a reason to fear anyone. And, because my mother wanted me to be confident and independent, I was a free-range child. 

All that changed on a summer day at the stone field house at Promontory Point, a tiny peninsula on Lake Michigan. I would go there often, borrow a ball from the park district and, using the gap between the protruding pipes in the windowless field house basement, shoot baskets. 

That fateful day half a dozen older black teenagers came downstairs. I thought they were there to play but I was wrong. I became the game. They roughed me up, then released me, turned off all the lights, hunted me down again and started the game all over. A man from the park district office heard my screams and came to chase the teens away. Because I was terrified, he walked me to the entrance of our apartment building, his arm around my shoulders. 

Between sobs I kept wondering “why did they do this to me?” I had no reference point for such violence. As with the groping businessman, I never told Mom what had happened. 

That was the day everything changed. I still roamed through my neighborhood, but if I saw a group of black youths coming toward me I crossed the street or ducked down an alley. (This escape strategy did not always work and, trust me, you do not want to ever be caught in a Chicago alley.) 

Sure, this is profiling, but I wasn’t hateful. I was cautious. Once burned, twice shy. I quickly caught on that there were certain neighborhoods next to ours that you never crossed into, and that the city of broad shoulders—and, indeed, the country—was divided by race.

Today, at the age of 62, after a life away from the violence of Chicago, and a career that includes working with and for African Americans, I thought had left racial anxiety behind. But on that day with my wife on the subway I was that frightened South Side kid again. 

I was scared because of the color of my skin.

However, it occurs to me that instead of this story being another example of how divided the races are, perhaps within my experience there is common ground, a place to begin a conversation. 

Fear is a generic. It does not distinguish between races. How we arrive at that emotion is what distinguishes us.

Could it be that the fear I felt as a ten-year-old, and as a 62-year-old, is the same as African Americans feel at any age when a squad car approaches? 

Is it true that my learned behavior of caution and, OK, let’s call it what it is, prejudice, is also learned by African Americans each and every day on the streets of Chicago, Baltimore, Oakland, and Ferguson, Missouri? 

I am not so arrogant as to tell anyone that I understand how African Americans feel. But I do know something about what it is to be frightened and how hard it is to overcome, if ever, a violent experience. 

Nothing happened to us on the subway. A few passengers begrudgingly dug some change out of their pockets and the group grifted on to the next car.  Still, my heart did not stop racing until we disembarked.


Two weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon, a man was beaten and robbed on the same Red Line train by four black men who were not pleased with his five-dollar contribution to their “basketball fund.” After beating and robbing the man, the four got off the subway at the 55thStreet station, in Hyde Park, three blocks from where I grew up.

About Stephen J. Lyons:

Stephen J. Lyons is the author of four books of essays and journalism. His most recent book is "Going Driftless: Life Lessons from the Heartland for Unraveling Times."