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How A Black Repairman's Conversation With His White Client Touched The Nation

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

After the police killing of George Floyd, many people are having conversations about race, and one of those conversations, in Myrtle Beach, S.C., went viral online. Ernest Skelton owns an appliance repair business. He went to Caroline Brock's house to fix her washer and dryer on a day when she was watching news of the nationwide protests.

She asked Skelton about his experiences with racism and was surprised to hear what was happening in their community. He described random stops by local police, difficulty finding jobs, discrimination from customers. Caroline was shocked and moved by what he told her, and with his permission, she shared their conversation on Facebook. Since then, they've become friends.

David Greene reached out to them a few days ago to hear more, and Ernest Skelton began by talking about his life in Myrtle Beach as a Black man getting stopped by police.

ERNEST SKELTON: I was getting pulled over for no reason. It was just all over here in Myrtle Beach, Horry County. It just got to the point that, you know - 'cause I get home around, like, 8 or 9 o'clock, maybe 10 o'clock. It depends on my schedule. I get pulled over - want to know why I'm staying out too late. it just got to the point, man, I was just - didn't want to do it anymore. I was just tired of the harassment.

DAVID GREENE, BYLINE: Yeah. I mean, the other thing that really stuck with me was reading about how, you know, you own your business, you have so much experience, but you have customers who will actually, like, question your credentials?

SKELTON: Yes. Before I even come into the door, they ask me if I'm qualified, certified, do I have a, you know, license to do work on their appliance, and they want a background history. And - you know, and I told them - I said, well, if you don't want me to come, I can call the warranty company and tell them that you'd rather have someone else. Then they tell me, well, come on in. So when I do come in, they be over your shoulders and just seeing every move that you do (laughter) because I guess they wasn't comfortable having me in the house or what. I'm not sure what that was. But yes, I was questioned before I even got in.

GREENE: So tell me how you met Caroline.

SKELTON: Actually, she was one of the customers. She's another customer, and she just asked a question. And then, you know, when I see that she was sincere - you can tell when a person is sincere and concerned about our community. So I was able to vent with Caroline 'cause I was walking around with a lot of anger because - having two degrees - you know, getting pulled over, can't get a job, you know, that builds up. That builds up. So when I spoke to Caroline, I was able to relieve all that pressure that was holding in me and the anger that I was having. You know, after talking to Caroline, it just - you know, it was a relief.

GREENE: Do you mind if - I know Caroline's right there. Do you mind passing the phone and I can ask her a couple questions?

SKELTON: Sure. Sure. Here she is.

GREENE: Awesome. Thanks, Ernest.

CAROLINE BROCK: Hello.

GREENE: Hey, Caroline. So can you take me to that moment? I mean, you - where was your thinking that day? And why did you decide to open this kind of conversation?

BROCK: Well, I think, you know, Saturday morning dawned, and most people were watching the tension ratchet up in Minneapolis. And so that's why, when he came in, I just thought to myself, how would it be to be a Black man coming into white people's homes on a day like this? That just led me to ask the question.

And when he started opening up, I can still remember where I was on the stairs when he mentioned how often he gets pulled over. And I stopped in my tracks because a lot of the things he was saying, it was really matter of fact. He wasn't, you know, projecting anger at me. He wasn't railing against his reality. He was just stating how he operates in the world and what he experiences. And that type of matter-of-fact conversation was really illuminating to me and really surprising.

GREENE: And, Caroline, can I ask you - I mean, if people hear your story of the two of you and they feel like this is almost too perfect, it's almost, like, too storybook - I mean, it's like, you know, a white woman who had not been exposed to these kinds of stories, you know, meets a Black man who tells her about his experiences and, you know, everything is, you know, happy. What would you say to them to tell them that this is more than that?

BROCK: That's a good question. I do think that one of the reasons why this story got the attention that it did is because people want a happy ending. And people want it to be solved, and it's not going to be solved easily. You know, I think part of the puzzle is that we need to start talking to each other and talking in ways that are uncomfortable.

This problem, this systemic racism, has a lot of different components in it, and I feel like it needs to be led by a change of heart. And I know that sounds cliche, but I really feel like it's foundational and fundamental to the changing of our hearts in our country because, you know, you can change laws and make sure that the most vulnerable are protected, and that's, you know, been done steadily since the end of slavery. But, I mean, to be perfectly honest, have white people in the South ever really apologized, ever really had their hearts changed?

GREENE: Thank you. Could I talk to Ernest one more time?

BROCK: Sure. Sure. Of course.

SKELTON: Hey.

GREENE: Hey, Ernest. The fact that you just felt like venting to Caroline, that you let all of that anger just out that day with her...

SKELTON: Yes.

GREENE: ...Like, was it important that she is white? Like, did you need someone who is white to vent to?

SKELTON: Yes. Yes.

GREENE: Why is that?

SKELTON: Yes, that's very important. That's very important because you don't want to vent to, you know, another African American because they going through the same thing I'm going through (laughter). The white people is actually doing what we complaining about. I mean, we getting pulled over for no reason by the white cops. I can't get a job because of a white person, because of my skin color, with two degrees. When I go to interviews, it's just all white businessmen that's actually in high positions. So when you vent to somebody, you know, of a different race, yes, it makes a big difference, especially when you see that they are sincere and concerned.

INSKEEP: Ernest Skelton, appliance repair business owner, and Caroline Brock of Myrtle Beach, S.C., one of his customers. Both spoke with David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "PORTRAIT OF AN ANGEL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.