What happened to Michael Brown Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri has resonated across the country with African Americans because all of us feel that it could have easily happened to any of us.
Every black person has their own story of racial profiling, especially black men. Any white person, not just police, engages in racial profiling when they suspect, avoid, follow, report or challenge a black person simply because of their race and their own idea of where black people “belong.”
My own family is more typical than exceptional. I was about ten years old, and my family was living in a newly integrated part of Los Angeles in the 1960’s. We had been on a family outing to the more exclusively white area of the San Fernando Valley. When returning at the end of the day, my father noticed a police car had begun following us. The police car followed us fully ten miles back to our neighborhood and didn’t stop until my father pulled into the driveway of our own home.
As we exited the car, the officer got out to question my father. I remember hearing the officer ask my father, “Where do you live?” Insulted and incredulous, my father responded, “I’m standing in front of my home.” After inspecting his driver license, the officer left. But he left my father standing there, embarrassed as a grown man, humiliated in front of his family, and reminded once more that in spite of his college education, middle class home and tidy children, he was no more than a criminal suspect in the eyes of America.
“The officer left my father standing there, embarrassed as a grown man, humiliated in front of his family.”
I had my own initiation freshman year at Harvard College. I had just left a matinee movie in Harvard Square and crossed the street into Harvard Yard to rendezvous with friends in Grays Hall (one of the Yard dorms). Suddenly, I noticed a strange sight, a Cambridge police car, with blue lights flashing, driving in the Yard! One of the things a freshman learns upon arriving at school is the unique legal boundaries that envelop most colleges in the United States: all campus buildings and students are policed by the University Police, non-students and the surrounding community is policed by the City of Cambridge Police. As I approached my destination, I surmised that a serious crime must have occurred in Grays Hall for the police to be violating that boundary.
But suddenly I heard the screeching halt of the tires and the metallic disembarkation of the officers and noticed, as they crouched behind their opened car doors, that they had their hands poised above their gun holsters. Now my heart began to race and a fog of disorientation dissolved into the bracing reality that I was the emergency. It was a cold winter day and I had my hands deep in the pockets of my overcoat. The officers barked out their orders for me to, “Take your hands out of your pockets, SLOWLY.” As they cautiously approached me I could see the gathering crowd on the steps of Grays Hall watching nervously as the episode unfolded.
“My heart began to race and a fog of disorientation dissolved into the bracing reality that I was the emergency.”
The officers demanded my identification. Fortunately, I was carrying my college ID card and was able to prove that I belonged on campus. As they relaxed and began to return to their cars, I had demands of my own. “Why did you stop me?” Dismissively, they tossed a “You fit the description” over their shoulder. There had been a report of an assault by a black man in a white coat in the subway station at Harvard Square. Yes, I fit the description. I was a black man.
This experience has stayed with me my entire life. It is a virtual rite of passage for every black boy. White boys lose their virginity, Jewish boys get bar mitvah’ed, and black boys have their first police stop. Now, I was a man.
“I fit the description. I was a black man.”
This constant feeling of being under suspicion, under surveillance and perceived as a danger, is hard to shake. It first resulted in a rather comical experience that I had just a few months later. I was walking in the neighborhood where the campus and the community are indistinguishable. But I was apparently in front of a school-owned building because this incident involved the Harvard University Police. I was walking down a narrow side street about a block outside the Yard when I saw several Harvard Police cars with lights flashing and sirens sounding arriving from both directions.
Panic stricken and totally convinced they were coming for me, I froze; heart pounding out of my head, waiting for the first bullet to strike, when at least a dozen officers got out of their cars, ran towards me and then without a word, ran right past me and into the house behind me. I continued my journey but I would still not trust that next time they would be coming for me.
It is a testimony to the persistence of racial profiling that 35 years later (2009), on a street not far from that one, black Harvard professor (and close friend of President Barack Obama), Henry “Skip” Gates, would be arrested by Cambridge police officers for breaking and entering his own house. A white neighbor saw a suspicious black man forcing his way into a house. The police believed the white neighbor but disbelieved the professor who was in custody at the police department before he had the opportunity to prove that he belonged (in that house).
My next experience was also in a college community. A white female classmate and I were going to lunch, and I was driving. Before we could reach our destination, a city cop pulled us over. He didn’t ask for my driver license or registration. He asked her, “Are you alright?” While I was stunned and dumbfounded, she figured it out before I did. He saw a black man driving a white woman and deemed she needed saving.
Finally, my son has had it harder that I had it. He has had so many experiences that he doesn’t bother to tell me about them all. But this one was a gem. He and a friend were returning from a club late one night and got into a cab for a ride home. A few blocks away from the club, a police car pulled the cab over. Their first thought was that the cab driver had committed some traffic infraction. But instead of asking the driver for his license, the officers ordered my son and his friend to get out of the back seat and stand on the side walk.
“‘Riding a taxi while black’ had now been added to the catalogue of ‘_______while black’ crimes.”
Suddenly, they realized that the police weren’t stopping the driver but the two of them. What was their crime? Apparently, “riding a taxi while black” had now been added to the catalogue of “_______while black” crimes. No charges, just a harassing “catch and release” action that is the most common outcome of these encounters.
The presumption of guilt and danger that is at the heart of racial profiling lays heavy upon every black person living in America. It changes our relationship with the world. We are constantly on guard against a charge, a confrontation, a challenge. Racial profiling does long-term damage to the self-image, self-esteem and ego of the African American.