Although many people in the 1950s believed that African Americans were inferior to Caucasians, nevertheless their theory was wrong because any flaws African Americans had at the time were due to the way they were treated, not their race. John Howard Griffin discovers this by changing his skin color and living like an African American.
John Howard Griffin was an expert on race issues when he darkened his skin and went down south to experience what life was like for an African American. Despite his enlightened view of civil rights, he was fully unaware of what it would be like to become African American. Even though he, like most northerners, was aware of the poor treatment of the African American people in the south, he was unaware of how demeaning it was to be African American and how impossible it had become for African Americans to become successful members of society.
When Griffin’s skin was darkened he was treated differently than when his skin was white. He was treated horrifically for no other reason than the color of his skin. He was condescended upon by Caucasians and spoken to vulgarly. On one occasion, he was chased down the street by a Caucasian youth while offensive obscenities were hurled at him. However, the discrimination he endured was not always this obvious. Sometimes it was very subtle. Even before his color change Griffin knew that African Americans were given low paying jobs and were not allowed to work at certain businesses or use some services. He did not know, however, how this treatment made African American life miserable. On page 52, the cumulative effect of the discrimination is explained.
“You take a young white boy. He can go through school and college with a real incentive. He knows he can make good money in any profession when he gets out. But can a Negro- in the South? No, I’ve seen many make brilliant grades in college. And yet when they come home in the summers to earn a little money, they have to do the most menial work. And even when they graduate, it’s a long hard pull. Most take postal jobs, or preaching or teaching jobs. This is the cream. What about the others, Mr. Griffin? A man knows no matter how hard he works, he’s never going to quite manage… taxes and prices eat up more than he can earn. He can’t see how he’ll ever have a wife and children. The economic structure just doesn’t permit it unless he’s prepared to live down in poverty and have his wife work too.” This lifestyle was forced upon African Americans because of false stereotypes about their race.
“They saw us as “different’ from themselves in fundamental ways: we were irresponsible; we were different in our sexual morals; we were intellectually limited; we had a God-given sense of rhythm; we were lazy and happy-go-lucky; we loved watermelon and fried chicken.”(162) Sadly, the belief in the secondary status of an African American was widespread. Even intellectuals were misled by scientific studies published in scholarly journals and newspapers. The studies showed that African American people had more illegitimate children, earlier loss of virginity and a higher crime rate than compared to Caucasian people. Because of this, African Americans were discriminated against. This discrimination led African Americans into an ominous standard of living. Griffin, however, explains that the characteristics given to African Americans were not ingrown qualities shared among their race, but rather products of the poor conditions they were forced to live in.
Griffin says there is no “basic difference between black and white”(89) and attributes these characteristics as “the effects of environment on human nature.” (89) “You place the white man in the ghetto, deprive him of the educational advantages, arrange it so he has to struggle hard to fulfill his instinct for self-respect, give him little physical privacy and less leisure, and he would after a time assume the characteristics you attach to the Negro. These characteristics don’t spring from whiteness or blackness, but from a man’s conditioning…when you force humans into a subhuman mode of existence, this always happens.
Deprive a man of any contact with the pleasures of the spirit and he’ll fall completely into those of the flesh.” (90) African Americans were treated poorly because of negative stereotypes associated with their race. However, any truth in these stereotypes was due to their poor treatment, not the color of their skin. If they were treated poorly, they would gain these attributes. They were treated poorly because of these characteristics, the very characteristics that were caused by their poor treatment. This viscous cycle continued until the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
In John Howard Griffin’s book Black Like Me, Griffin accurately describes the difference between the way Caucasians were treated and the way African Americans were treated in America’s south during the 1950s. His ability to describe the contrast so accurately stems from the fact that he experienced what it was like to be seen as “black” and what it was like to be seen as “white”. Although many southerners at the time believed that Caucasians were superior to African Americans, nevertheless Griffin proves that African Americans are not inferior and that any negative characteristics that exist in stereotypical African Americans are caused by oppression by their Caucasian counterparts.