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Many black men in America, Frank Tramble says, have a story involving a pickup truck.
In 2014, Tramblewent for a run while in Madison, Georgia, for his cousin’s wedding. That run, he remembers, felt different than others. Every driver that passed stared at him, looking confused.
Then a pickup truck went by, made a U-turn, and came back in his direction. At that point, Tramble felt a gripping fear come over him.
“My heart sinks. The questions in my mind go crazy: ‘Is he coming back for me? Is this man going to mess with me? Is this the moment I always feared as a black man?’” he recalls. “I couldn’t help thinking: ‘Is this the one that’s going to end my life?’”
Tramble, the 32-year-old founder of DC Run Crew, a running club based in the District, reflected on this incident when he saw the news of the shooting death of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man who was running near his home in Glynn County, Georgia, when he was gunned down. Two white men, Gregory McMichael and his son Travis, the alleged shooter, followed Arbery, believing he was involved in nearby burglaries. A video of the fatal Feb. 23 shooting went viral this month and prompted outrage and widespread discussion about the fears of running while black in a predominantly white space. The McMichaels were ultimately arrested—74 days after the deadly shooting.
For a lot of black men and women, Arbery’s story feels all too familiar.
“Seeing the video of Ahmaud Arbery took me back to the moment I had,” says Tramble. “I find that every one of these stories takes me back, speaking as a black man, to a moment that I had that worked out in my favor. But that’s not a given for everyone, or every time.”
The Fenty family, which includes former Mayor Adrian Fenty, has been well-known in the D.C. running community since 1984, when Adrian’s father, Phil, opened the Fleet Feet running store on Columbia Road NW. Since then, running has been not only core to their business, but a core family value.
“We believe in running as a lifestyle to promote health. We try to do that through our business and the example we set in our lives,” says Shawn, Adrian’s older brother and the owner of Fleet Feet in Adams Morgan.
Shawn believes Arbery’s story has gotten attention because it touches on running and the black community, but that the incident is even more impactful because of what it represents.
“It goes to a culture and a values system that is deeper than just the death of Ahmaud Arbery,” he says. “I think that this particular situation brings awareness to the fear black people live with in the way that the Rodney King incident brought police brutality to the evening news. Now, black people can say, ‘See? This is what we live through. Our stories have been dismissed and devalued, but now you can see it. There it is.’”
In the United States, running tends to be a predominantly white space. Only 3 percent of runners who responded to Running USA’s 2020 National Runner Survey identified as black or African American.
But local runners see things differently in the District.
“It’s a bit more convoluted in D.C. This is a majority black city,” Shawn says. “There’s more black affluence concentrated here, so we may get a very distorted cultural view of what it’s like elsewhere in America.”
Runners point to D.C. as a relatively safe space, where the racial demographics are perceived as more balanced, and runners of color encounter more inclusivity than they might in other places.
“This city is so oddly diverse. If you go out to RFK Stadium today, you’ll see every type of person working out—white, black, old, young—all types of people in the same space,” says Tramble, a Detroit native whose organization focuses on helping inexperienced or beginner runners come to the sport. “The city is so small, so you have to be in each other’s lives whether you want to or not. Because of that, you have to develop a respect for one another … The gentrifier has to learn about the older black couple that lives next door, and that couple has to learn from the gentrifier.”
In an effort to reach further into the black community, DC Run Crew has moved some of their workouts out of the gentrified areas of Northwest D.C. near U Street NW and Shaw.
“What we want to do is show our black brothers and sisters that running is something that can help you mentally grow,” Tramble says. “So, we’ve moved some of our workouts into Northeast, Southeast, and Anacostia to bridge the gap between gentrified newcomers—like me—with the original residents of D.C.”
The death of Arbery has made black runners second-guess whether others’ perceptions and attitudes have ever put them in danger.
The black runners City Paper talked to for this story say they alter their behaviors and appearances to ensure that they come across as non-threatening—passing as a “real runner”—in white neighborhoods and communities. But these accommodations are not acts of politeness; they’re the result of runners’ deep fear for their safety, should someone feel threatened or compelled to call the authorities to report “suspicious” behavior.
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“I can’t assume that [people aren’t] thinking that I’m a threat,” says Fred Irby, a 40-year-old runner in D.C. “That’s something that white people don’t have to deal with.”
Black men in particular say they carry the unfair burden of trying to be nonthreatening to white individuals.
“For every black person, we are brought up understanding that the context we give people could be a matter of life and death,” Tramble says. “We go out of our way to present less of a threat or to appear more professional to white people. We change our clothes, our hair … We’ve learned to build ourselves in a way that makes white people feel comfortable.”
“I always do things to make myself less of a target,” Irby adds. “I found that running with my dog helps … I need to put on bright clothing, so that people can identify that I’m a runner. I’m a black person running, not a black person running from something.”
Alex Amankwah, a professional middle distance runner for the D.C.-based and Under Armour-sponsored District Track Club, hasn’t experienced any incidents of racism while out running in the D.C. area, but the video of Arbery brings back memories of his own encounters with racists while living in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.
During the first incident, which Amankwah says happened in 2016, he was running approximately a half mile away from the University of Alabama track with two white teammates when several middle-aged white men in a car drove by and shouted the N-word at him. The second time, which Amankwah remembers occurring in late 2018 or early 2019, a different set of older white men shouted “fuck you” plus the N-word, Amankwah says, while he was running alone on a sidewalk near campus.
A Ghana native who grew up in Los Angeles, Amankwah, 28, says it was his first time dealing with explicit racism.
“At first I was just angry,” he says. “I knew racism existed, and I knew certain people with that mindset. I was just angry. ‘Why would you say that? You don’t know me. Why are you comfortable enough to say something like that to me?’ I had a lot of questions.”
Even with those experiences, Amankwah emphasizes that he holds nothing against his alma mater. “Overall, I had way more people loving me for who I am rather than judging me for my skin tone,” he says. “I don’t want to destroy the warmth that I got from the city and the university with just those two instances, because that isn’t what Alabama or the city of Tuscaloosa is about.”
As a professional runner, Amankwah consistently trains outside, and while he hasn’t felt uncomfortable doing that in the D.C. area, he plans to be more cautious and cognizant of his surroundings after watching the Arbery video. Amankwah says he doesn’t want to find himself in a position where he’s at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“I’m mainly just cautious, and that comes across my mind after the video with Ahmaud,” he says. “It’s kind of a weird line. I don’t want to think everyone who’s white would do something like that, but it’s just being more cautious, being in certain neighborhoods, and keeping an eye out.”
Making these accommodations feels self-defeating for many, in that it forces black runners—and black people in general—to go more than halfway to overcome harmful racist stereotypes and generalizations that black people are suspicious or don’t belong in certain neighborhoods.
“It’s extremely heavy. It’s something you get used to, but should never have to get used to,” says Tramble. “As I look at my 1-year-old, I think to myself, ‘I have to raise a black man,’ and I am terrified. Every single moment can be the wrong moment.”
Reflecting on Arbery’s death, black runners want white runners to step up and recognize their role in creating meaningful change. “The default needs to be shifted with race relations between whites and blacks. I’m of the mind that a white person’s silence when a black person is killed in a way like Ahmaud Arbery—your silence is, in effect, complicity,” says Irby.
Irby recognizes that advocating against racism may get a little uncomfortable, but believes that is what is most essential for creating real change. “As it concerns race, we’re all involved in this. But for the most part, white people have gotten away with not having any skin in the game …. Collectively, white people have been sitting on the sidelines because it’s convenient, it’s comfortable,” he says.
“I know sometimes white Americans, sometimes they have white friends who have those [racist] views,” Amankwah adds. “Don’t leave it alone. It’s not OK … Don’t let it slide that they are racist. It’s not OK to be racist, and just because you’re not racist and you have racist friends, it’s not OK. Let them know why it’s not OK to be racist.”
That expectation extends into the running community, as well.
“Reach out to your fellow runners and encourage them to do something, to do some advocacy,” Irby says. “You need to let them know that their lack of advocacy will impact your relationship with them.”
Tramble feels lucky. His story involving a pickup truck did not end in violence.
He credits something so small that many might not even think of it: his outfit.
“I think the reason the person [in the truck] never said or did anything to me is because I had on expensive Nike clothes. I had the ‘right’ clothes,” he says. “When I started running, I just had regular shorts and a T-shirt. If I only had that on that day, I truly believe that my story could have ended differently.”
Tramble wants the running community to lead by example.
There is a push to make running clubs and the sport overall more inclusive by proactively welcoming and drawing in runners from different backgrounds. This would both strengthen the running community and increase understanding and empathy across backgrounds. It may also help change perceptions, so that people with bigoted views don’t think it’s dangerous or suspicious to see a black person running down the street.
To lead, or even to follow, means publicly showing solidarity with black runners and on issues that affect the black community. It’s more than just hashtags.
“White people who want to be on the side of morality, it has to be more than social media posts,” Irby says. “The onus is not just awareness, but also action. If you are a white person who actively desires to eliminate racism, then the onus needs to be on you.”