It needs to be acknowledged at the very outset of this column that there is, of course, no way that a middle-aged white man of substantial privilege can ever really understand what it’s like to be a person of color in the 21st century United States, much less presume to speak to that reality with any authority.
The best that people like me can do is try to watch and listen and learn, and maybe make modest and imperfect analogies from our own experiences in order to acquire small inklings of what it must be like to face myriad challenges from which we have, as a result of having been born white, been spared.
There have, however, been a small handful of events in my life in which I have experienced pit-of-the-stomach fear and rage at being the subject of unjust treatment – experiences that changed me and that still burn in my memory many years later. Had such events been a regular part of my life and those of my family and friends, I’m not sure how I would have stayed sane.
Two race-related events from my years as a college student at UCLA in the early 1980s (in supposedly liberal-minded Southern California) stand out.
The first occurred one early winter evening as I was circling the neighborhood in the crowded, middle class, West L.A. apartment community where my roommates and I lived and regularly struggled to find parking spaces for our oversized, 1960s and ’70s vehicles. After finally finding a space on the second or third trip around the block and exiting my car, I was immediately accosted by two young LAPD police officers who, within seconds, forced me (a pathetically skinny and unimposing character) to raise my hands and undergo an invasive body search. (In the years since, I’ve occasionally wondered if one of the two might have been a young Mark Fuhrman a decade prior to his O.J. Simpson trial infamy.)
My friend and roommate – another notably nerdy and unthreatening individual – seeing this scene unfold from our second-floor patio window, ran out of the apartment shouting “hey that’s my friend, he lives here, stop!”
Within seconds, he was forced by the officers to assume a face-down position onto the hood of a car with arms behind his back. An invasive physical search ensued and turned up a tiny and empty marijuana pipe in a jacket that he had grabbed on the way out the door to come to my defense– a jacket and a pipe that actually didn’t even belong to him.
Happily, there were no arrests or further physical abuse. After destroying the dangerous contraband, terrorizing us for a few more minutes with a profane and threatening lecture, the two bullies/officers – who claimed to be looking for someone who had been committing break-ins in the neighborhood – turned us loose.
The next day, we were informed by a young African-American guy of around our age who lived in our building with his parents, that he received this kind of treatment from the LAPD “all the time.”
A few months later, I experienced another similarly unforgettable and awful incident. It happened one night after exiting a campus library with a young woman whom I had recently started dating who happened to be African American.
As we walked to our cars in the parking deck and embraced to kiss good night, two young white idiots drove by, stopped their car and shouted at us: “Get your hands off that [racist epithet]!
I was too shocked and dumbfounded (and young and inexperienced) to do or say anything very intelligent or courageous, but my woman friend, not surprisingly, felt terrified and dissolved into tears.
I think of these two incidents of almost 40 years ago often – especially when I think about the countless similar indignities that so many people of color in our country must endure all the time.
And if those two incidents, in which I was never in any real danger and that I quickly left behind for a life of enormous privilege and comfort, still fuel a degree of rage in me four decades later, I can only imagine what it must be like to experience vastly greater degrees of fear, anger and vulnerability (for oneself, one’s family members, one’s friends,) on a regular basis.
My suspicion is that it would be more than enough, as TV personality Trevor Noah described it in some insightful remarks this past weekend, to undermine my commitment to and belief in the social contract into which humans enter in order to live in what we suppose will be a civilized society.
And I would only hope that I could be as eloquent and restrained as an African American journalist named Rob Woodfork was when he put it this way:
Frankly, we’re tired of asking — and in George Floyd’s case, begging — to live. We are American citizens, same as white people. We shouldn’t have to ask for American privileges like freedom and equality but we do — and usually pretty damn politely. Please listen.”
Please listen, indeed.