York's black men take on stereotype


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Ronald Sexton remembers the tanks.

He was a little boy, about 3 or 4, watching the National Guard literally roll into York City.

"When I think about it, I was too young to really know what was going on," Sexton said. "You could sense it in the air. You could sense the tension. You could feel something was going on."

That "something" was York's 1969 race riots, a period of unrest that ultimately claimed the lives of a black woman from South Carolina and a white York City police officer.

The racially charged violence of 46 years ago has since ended in York. But all these decades later, racially charged riots continue to make headlines elsewhere, such as Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore.

Now 49 and a college graduate living in the suburbs, Sexton said he sees modern racism much more clearly than he did as a young boy living on Newberry Street.

It's more subtle these days, hidden in the tone of a white store manager who condescendingly called Sexton "homie" not that long ago.

"The way he was responding to me, it's like he almost expected me to be this animal," Sexton said.

It's the click of car doors locking when he crosses the street. It's the predictable shadow of a department store employee following Sexton as he shops.

And it's the sometimes deadly mistake of a police officer who assumes a black man is holding a gun when it's really just a cellphone, said Sandra Thompson, president of the York NAACP.

The stereotype of black man as troublemaker continues to color the experiences of black men in York County, Thompson said.

"He definitely has the challenge of overcoming those stereotypes of being inferior, less qualified, wanting a handout," Thompson said. "You really have to distinguish yourself. And even when you distinguish yourself, then you're still put in your place."

A calling: At just 36 years old, S. Prescott Harris II has built the resume of a corporate America superstar.

As a teenager, with ACT scores off the charts, he bypassed college and went right to management training for a large company.

Harris hopscotched around the country for years, taking on high-level positions at each turn. He's served as CEO of two companies, including one he launched.

At age 30, he enrolled in the Harvard University Kennedy School of Government's leadership program.

Despite all his accomplishments, there's a question that nags at Harris.

"What if my name was Jamal?" he said. "Would I have gotten all the positions that I have gotten?"

Apparently expecting a white man, a few employers have done a double take when Harris has walked through the doors for a job interview.

A few uncomfortable encounters aside, Harris said he has been largely spared the ugliness of racism. Perhaps, he said, his early achievements paved a pathway of unusual privilege.

But he cannot ignore the stories of men who look like him.

That's why he's traded a lucrative career in business for a less lucrative one in politics. These days, Harris is living in York City and working as the outreach director for the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

The son of Birmingham, Alabama, civil-rights activists, Harris said the fight for equality is in his blood.

"I felt like this is not a job. It's more of a calling for me," Harris said.

Harris said he wants to teach at-risk youth about the power of politics. He wants to fight the stereotype that politics is for white men and white men only.

He's not looking to be a role model, but he wants to empower the disenfranchised communities of Pennsylvania with a simple message.

"Stop complaining and let's get to work," he said.

The bigger picture: The tanks of 1969 are a distant memory now for Sexton, who moved to Mount Wolf in 2002.

He's happy there, with neighbors who chat over fences and police officers who wave when they drive by. But he is, unmistakably, a minority.

"I remember when I first started seeing black people other than myself, I would get excited," he said with a laugh.

Sexton recently graduated from Harrisburg Area Community College with a degree in social science. He's planning to continue on to grad school and then start a career as a clinical social worker helping people with substance abuse issues.

His education, Sexton said, has greatly informed his perceptions of race and racism. As evidence of lingering racism, Sexton points to the reaction of many white people — including some of his friends — to President Barack Obama's election.

The sight of a black man assuming the most powerful role in the world shattered subconscious beliefs that white people are superior and blacks inferior, he said.

"And a lot of people just could not deal with it," Sexton said. "It really brought out the worst in them."

And on a larger level, many of the problems within the black community can be traced to institutionalized racism, Sexton said.

He cited disproportionate percentages of incarcerated black men compared to whites. That fuels a cycle of broken families and poverty, Sexton said.

"Once you have the breakdown of the family, you're not going to have that support system at home for a child entering into school," he said.

And education is the key to breaking that cycle, he said. It's a realization Sexton came to later in life, after years of battling his own substance-abuse issues.

"I can see that now," he said.

Choosing an identity: For Jason Howe, the tension between black and white is more than personal.

It's biology.

Born 34 years ago to a black mother and a white father, Howe's biracial identity has shaped his experiences since before he can remember.

For the first few years of his life, Howe's parents tried to keep their family of four together. But with his Dover parents unwilling to accept his black wife and biracial sons, Howe's father walked away around the time Howe was 3 or 4.

But life continued to be complicated for Howe and his brother. They lived with their black mother and relatives in a mostly white neighborhood on York City's east end — where the parents of their white friends chased them from porches and excluded them from birthday parties.

They often spent weekends visiting a black grandmother in another part of York City, where neighbors were less affluent but more accepting of the biracial boys.

"We kind of lived between two worlds," Howe said.

When his father resurfaced in his life years later, Howe said he experienced some resentment among his black friends — whose fathers weren't around to take them camping or to Hersheypark.

"I always felt like I was too black to hang with white kids and too white to hang with black kids," Howe said.

That conflict of identity is something Howe continues to explore. Recently divorced, Howe said he's moved back to York City from the suburbs because it's where he feels most comfortable.

"It has everything to do with race," he said.

Howe said he's tired of feeling isolated in his professional life. After a stint in the military, Howe earned a degree in accounting. In his career, he said, he's rarely had a black co-worker.

He's working through feelings of guilt about possible privileges he had, just because he's half white. Then again, he said, he had a great mother and grandparents who insisted on good grades and accountability.

With children of his own, Howe said he sees how things have changed since he was the biracial child making friends. His biracial kids don't seem to have trouble making friends with everyone, Howe said.

"They think nothing of it. They don't worry about these things," he said. "I felt like I had the world on my shoulders."

But there is work to be done, Thompson said. Just look at the members of boards of local governments and nonprofit agencies, she said.

Most of their faces are white.

"That tells you how far we've come in this community," Thompson said.

— Reach Erin James at