I work with a young guy who happened to be born African American. Recently, I had an odd exchange with an industry regulator who asked me to stay behind from a meeting while everyone else left. I wondered what I got myself into as these conversations rarely go well.
He sat across from me at the paper-veneered cherry table and I gulped.
“Thanks for coming by, Dennis,” he said, shuffling papers. I wondered if my resume was current. He smiled but looked confused and asked, “Do you think the company knows what they have in this guy?” He was talking about my friend who was also in the first meeting.
Maybe I looked a little dopey because he kept going.
“I mean, he’s young, good looking, and he presents himself really well.”
I nodded, still waiting for the shoe to drop.
“If they don’t know what they have in him, I am positive someone else will figure it out. That guy’s on the way to be CEO somewhere.”
This week, after several posts about solidarity with George Floyd, my friend told a story on Facebook. He was still in college and driving home from a movie. A car came up behind him and blue lights erupted. Under pine trees on the side of the road, an officer came up to the car and asked for his license and registration.
“No problem officer,” he said. “Can you tell me why you stopped me?”
“Just get your license and registration. That’s all we need right now.”
My friend nodded. “I’ll get it for you, sir, but it’s in my glove box. I’ll have to lean over and reach in the box to get it. Fine?” He’d been properly schooled in how a Black man talks to a White man on the side of the road with police car lights flashing.
“Just get it. It’s not a problem.”
Reaching across the seat, he pushed the button to release the glove box door and heard a shuffle.
“Get out of the car now. Now!”
Startled, he spun around and saw the open barrel of a police revolver, inches from his face.
“Get. Out. Of. The. Car. Now,” the officer said. “Now.”
“But, officer. You said…”
“Now!” There was no question in his tone.
“My friend put his hands up so they could be seen and said he was reaching to open the door. Once opened, he slid out of the car and the policeman set the young man’s hands hard on the hood.” Bewildered, he only knew it was late and dark, and they were on a back road, alone. He hadn’t a clue what would happen next.
“Stay here and don’t move. Is the passenger door open?”
“The officer went around to the side and opened the door. He pulled everything from the glove box and console and rifled through the back seats. Waving the registration, he asked, ”Is it all accurate? This is your car? Your name?”
“Okay. Fine. You can get back in the car.”
Sensing a pause, my friend asked his first question again.
“Officer, can you tell me why you pulled me over?”
“Taillight out. Get it fixed tomorrow.”
A taillight was out. How badly could that have gone? And how quickly?
I had something like this happen to me once, in Georgia. I was in the passenger seat of a red truck playing guitar while we drove downtown. From nowhere, blue lights flashed in front of and behind the truck. Trapped, we stopped driving. An officer stepped out of the lead car. The truck’s driver hopped out and went up to the police car. I watched and I finally opened the door and hopped out. As quick as I hopped out, the police officer in front of us put his lips to a bullhorn and his right hand on his pistol.
“Get back in the truck, sir.”
“I’m just walking to your car,” I said, too naive and optimistic for my own good.
Now the officer pulled the gun from its holster.
“I need you back in the car now,” he said, allowing no quarter.
I did and within ten minutes the driver came back, laughing.
“Man. What is going on?”
“I guess some guy in a white tee shirt like yours stole a red truck a couple miles up the road,” he said. “And they thought you looked pretty criminal.”
I never gave the episode a second thought. But, reading my friend’s story with my wife, we – middle-age White and Asian professionals – agreed we’ve never felt anything close to this: a fear of simply driving home at night and seeing lights turn on behind you. I would be irritated but would never think our lives are at stake. I can hardly imagine what it’s like to wander around, knowing I would be picked out as the bad guy just because I am there.
White privilege is wrapped up in here somewhere. And African American culture, too. And middle-age and driving a beat-up Toyota versus an old Saab. I think people understand this, but it’s the skewed statistics that are bothersome and frightening. Maybe I’m not in the demographic to do something. Maybe being white and old and compliant sends signals that I’m not dangerous. Maybe being poor and young and African American doesn’t send as strong a safe signal. But, that is the issue. We pay people to keep their bias away from work. We pay them and train them and test them. But when that bias keeps coming up, then something isn’t working. Something is overlooked. Something is wrong.
It’s trite to say now that something is wrong. An African American man was murdered in Minneapolis for the crime of being Black. We can ask for forgiveness but it’s am empty cry without systemic changes that heal these wrongs.