"O Lord, I don't know what I want for my kids," a 30-ish African-American mother just outside our local Wal-Mart told me. "I just want it to be easier for them than it was for me."
I had just asked her the same question I asked about 20 other blacks in various settings in our city last week: "If you could pick just one thing you'd like to be different in America over the next generation, what would it be?" I made it clear we were doing an issue of WORLD magazine on the subject of race relations in our society. What single change might be most for the good?
Sidewalk surveys lack statistical significance, to be sure. But they also produce a certain kind of emotional wallop and immediacy you don't find with mail-in forms or telephone polls. I was impressed by how willing everyone was to engage my nosiness.
"Respect," said John, who was watering plants at Wal-Mart's garden center. "Just respect. Respect by you for us, and respect from us to you. And don't ask me to go any further, because then it gets too deep. We'd be a lot better off if we just respected each other."
Elaine surprised me with her answer: "Guys who will be dads instead of dudes," she said. She grew up in the church, and her parents are still together. That's what she wanted for herself, but she's a single mom now with three elementary-age children. Her husband left them three years ago, taking off for Baltimore and another woman, she said. The fact that he rarely sends money is an overwhelming practical problem; but the fact that she's alone in her parenting is much bigger in her mind.
I headed for the county courthouse. Eldon was waiting near the back entrance for the start of visiting hours at the county jail, where his younger brother faces trial next month on a drug charge. "I just wish we could wipe out the whole drug problem in America," Eldon told me fiercely. "It messes us all up so bad." He told me he had heard that more than a third of the jail's population were there because of drug-related offenses.
While Eldon made no excuses for his brother's behavior, Letetia said she hopes her children get a better break in America's courts than her own generation has found. "Look around you," she said, waving her hand at the dozens of people milling about and filing through the metal detector. "If you think there are more black folks here just because we behave worse than others, then I guess that makes the point. Racism is alive and well. I can tell you that from the time they start looking for a suspect until they sentence him for what he did, the process is stacked against us. I hope that changes for my kids."
From the courthouse I headed for Asheville High School, a public school with a decent if not great reputation, and a much higher proportion of minority students than would be suggested by our county's population at large. Buses were coming and going on this first morning of classes, and a few parents were dropping students off in cars as well. I asked one mother, Genevieve, what changes she'd like to see brought about by the time her son, a sophomore with an interest in computers, has children of his own. "I just hope they get a better start in school than Edward did," she said. "Eddie didn't learn to read very well back in his first years-and that's been a problem for him right up until now. Most of our schools aren't as good as those in the suburbs. I wish we had much better schools."
I ended my survey right in our own office. Jacque Logan, mother of three, coordinates the fulfillment functions for WORLD magazine, making sure each week's mailings happen as they are scheduled to and keeping close touch with the U.S. Postal Service. Jacque told me she simply shares the dream Martin Luther King Jr. expressed. "I just want them to be judged by the content of their character, and not by the color of their skin," she said. Then, I think to make sure I didn't take that just as a pollyannaish motto, she offered a real-life example of what she meant. She told how not so long ago she had been walking just outside our office's front door when another shopper walking near her, noticing Jacque, then clutched her purse protectively closer to her. "That naturally hurts," she said. "It would be wonderful if my children never had to experience that."
It was, as I say, a pretty informal survey. It was instructive. But almost nothing I learned surprised me, except how easy it was to talk with folks about things that really matter. What also surprised me was the fact that I had never done it before.