The most troubling thing about the debate that swirled around the country following the recent arrest of Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his own home was the number of people who refuse to believe that racial discrimination ever happens.
Upon arriving home from a trip, Gates had difficulty getting into his house because the front door was jammed. A neighbor called police and reported two men trying to break into the house. When police arrived, Gates had already entered his house, but he was forced to produce identification, which he said was because he was black. He exchanged words with police and was arrested for disorderly conduct, but charges were later dropped.
Let us be absolutely clear on this. I am referring now to the broader issue of discrimination that the Gates case raised.
What amazed me as I listened to, or read comments about the subject, was the fact that so many people automatically dismissed the suggestion of racial bias, and implied that racial discrimination doesn’t happen.
I suppose some people have not experienced discrimination first-hand. No white dude has ever been pulled over for DWB (Driving While Black).
DWB refers to being stopped by police because of the color of one’s skin. Some argue that this doesn’t happen, but when one considers how common these reports are, and the number of prominent, well-educated black men who say they have been victims of DWB, it is difficult to ignore.
Some African American men say they have been pulled over when driving a well-kept expensive car, just so officers could see if it belonged to them. Others say they have been questioned by authorities just to verify that they belonged where they were.
Most law enforcement officers do an excellent job, but they are people, and a few of them may sometimes make questionable decisions.
Many years ago, a co-worker and I were sent to do some demolition as part of remodeling project. We arrived early on a Saturday morning and entered the office. A very loud security alarm immediately began to go off. The cops arrived and found us standing in the middle of the office. I was holding a large crowbar, and my co-worker was holding a sledgehammer. The officers never asked us for any identification. They said, “Your alarm is going off. You might want to shut that off.” Then, they turned around and left. I have often wondered how differently that situation might have gone if we had been black.
The concern that the Gates controversy brought to light involves people who would probably never consider themselves racist, but whose attitudes and beliefs perpetuate discrimination.
Some people seem surprised when people of color appear frustrated or irritated when confronted with racism. One wonders why this should surprise anyone, since these seem to be perfectly reasonable reactions under the circumstances.
Discrimination is never much fun if one is among those who are being discriminated against.
I suspect that if the cops started hassling all the well-nourished bald guys with chin whiskers, I might soon find this tiresome. Discrimination based on appearance is frustrating, and if one has spent one’s life fighting to overcome this sort of thing, it must be doubly so.
During my last year in high school, the principal developed a habit of stopping me in the hall whenever he caught sight of me, asking me if I belonged there, and demanding to see my student identification.
He had a “PhD” behind his name, but he didn’t have much common sense, and all the “long hairs” looked alike to him. Despite my scholastic achievement, all he could see was my long hair.
I felt sorry for him. It must have been difficult to go through life immersed in paranoia and fear.
The long hair I had at the time proved that appearance affects behavior.
I had a little game that I played in those days.
I would tuck my long hair up under my hat and go into a store.
Generally, the employees were friendly and helpful.
Later, I would return to the store with my hair flowing free.
The same clerks who had been so helpful before would either ignore me or treat me with fear and suspicion, following me around as if convinced I was there to steal something.
Instead of smiling, their faces reminded me of the expression one might see on the face of a vegetarian who has just discovered a large green caterpillar crouched among the lettuce leaves in her salad.
How often have people of certain ethnic groups seen this same expression, I wonder?
I had the option of cutting my hair, but a person who is black, hispanic, or of asian descent cannot hide the way he looks (nor should he have to).
To ignore racism or deny its existence is to allow it to continue.
We also need to be careful not to go too far in the other direction. We can no more assume that every incident that affects a person of color is the result of racism than we can assume that none of these incidents involve racism.
Some people are a bit too eager to throw out the race card at every opportunity, and these people damage the cause of equality more than they help it. Like the boy who cried wolf, those who cry racism where it does not apply make it more difficult for those who have been victimized to be heard.
The only way we can move forward is to have an open and honest dialogue about race and discrimination. These problems cannot be solved by laws alone. It is not enough to say all men are created equal. We must acknowledge and adjust our attitudes and our prejudices if we are to realize the dream of freedom for all.
If we allow discrimination against one group of people, there is no telling who might be next. That is the problem with enabling this kind of behavior. Today’s bystanders could become tomorrow’s victims.
When conflicts do arise, we must carefully consider the facts in each case.
We have come a long way in this country, and we cannot allow complacency or naiveté to prevent us from finishing the journey.