Putting on running shoes and heading out for a jog is not a straightforward affair for black men. Runner Rendell Smith remembers a white woman who was so scared when she saw him jogging toward her, she dropped her groceries and bolted.
“I got the wristbands, and threw a towel around my neck. I got the right jogging pants. And I assumed that this kind of costume would grant me safe passage through my neighborhood," Smith said about the experience. “I started getting different reactions in a predominantly white neighborhood, that ultimately culminated in one woman just absolutely panicking at the site of me running toward her.”
Smith became increasingly aware of the many racial stereotypes surrounding black men who run in cities and co-founded a Wilmington based group called Black Man Running to shift how people view black men in public space.
Smith talked with The State of Things host Frank Stasio about the legacy of racial policies on the use of public space.
"There were very violent restrictions on where African-Americans could go and when," Smith said of historical racial policies. Smith explained that the legacy of African-American freedom of movement in public is still felt today.
“Very early on in the conversation that we began having about the value of black lives, people began talking about ‘the talk’ that black parents give to their black children,” says Smith. “This talk involves making [children] understand that when they are moving around in public space in this country, they are perceived differently, they encounter different and various dangers as a result of being African-American.”
To spark a conversation about black lives in public space, Smith made a conscious decision to begin the group’s weekly Monday evening runs in a politically contentious space: Wilmington’s Hugh MacRae Park – named after a segregationist who donated the land for the use of “white citizens” only.
Martha Foye, a running coach with the group, says she was inspired to get involved because of the hope that visibility for black runners would serve as a form of protest. She recognizes the challenges black people face when trying to get fit. But she says that without making a personal commitment to health, having an open conversation about fitness in the African-American community becomes increasingly unlikely.
University of Maryland sociology professor Rashawn Ray looks into how the stereotypes surrounding African-Americans and exercise affect health outcomes.
“We have higher rates of obesity, lower rates of physical activity and that also comes with higher rates of chronic diseases,” Ray said.
He explored health inequalities among middle class black and white people, and tried to tackle the question of why increased social class does not necessarily narrow health gaps for people of different races.
“What I found is it has to do with the neighborhood that individuals live in." Middle class black men living in predominantly white neighborhoods were less likely to engage in physical activity than middle class black men living in predominantly black neighborhoods. But for black women he found the reverse; they are less likely to be physically active in predominantly black neighborhoods.
Ray explains that black men face stereotypes and criminalization in white neighborhoods – leading them to engage in ‘signaling’ like wearing obvious running gear and university alumni shirts.
Black women are faced with a different set of problems like running through spaces dominated by men, the perception of safety in black neighborhoods, and the influence of the narrative that black women do not exercise.
Toni Carey, the co-founder of the national running group Black Girls RUN!, wanted to tackle the myth that black women do not exercise. Multiple people, including her own mother, told Carey that black girls don’t run.
The assertions led her to start the running group and to create a space where black women can recognize themselves as being active.
“I think there was this real need [to] really [give] black women permission to be out there running,” Carey said.
Another goal in creating healthy African-American communities is to elevate the narrative of power and self-care for black women, she said.
“We give a lot of power away,” Carey said. “It’s OK to take that power back.”