In the early 1960s, my father wrote a column in Scandinavian newspapers called “Being Black in White America.” He talked about the issues facing Blacks in America and what that meant to the rest of the world. He talked about what it meant to be a Black man living in a country where, even though the law said one thing, Blacks were still treated differently. He spoke of the anger and the frustration of being Black in White America.
Fast forward 45 years to Massachusetts, Cambridge, to be specific, where Henry Louis Gates, arguably one of the leading scholars on African-Americans in the nation, was arrested in his own home by white police officers who believed him to be a burglar. The police–after ascertaining that he did, in fact, live in the home where they were questioning him–eventually arrested and charged him with disorderly conduct and racial harassment, according to reports. The charges were later dropped.
But the fact still remains that it does not matter that you are a Ph.D., it does not matter that you are a lawyer, it does not matter that you are a police officer or a teacher or journalist or a pastor. What first matters is that you are Black. And because you are Black, you are a suspect first and foremost.
As Benjamin Todd Jealous, president and CEO of the NAACP, said in his address last week to the NAACP national convention: “But racism is like an onion, and if you peel off the top layer, all you’re left with is the next layer,and you peel back the layer of presumed inferiority, and you find a layer of presumed criminality. It makes us prisoners in our own homes.
“You know, that layer is both more permeable and more volatile. It’s more permeable because once you’re vetted, once they do a background check or once they know you as a VP of sales or that neighbor or a Harvard man or a family man or a Howard man…Well, you’re vetted, and you’re known, and we’re familiar with you, and you’re in the face of familiarity.
“But when you’re walking down the street or you’re browsing in a department store and you’re in that space of anonymity, well, the difference between familiarity and anonymity can be the difference between pride and humiliation, it can be the difference between life and death, it can be the difference between being free and finding your name on a T-shirt on Bill Maher…”
This has to stop. We are more than suspects. We are the president of the United States, we are the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, we are hard-working Americans. But we happen to be Black, and therefore, we are SUSPECTS.
On the way home from the NAACP convention, my friend, a Black male in a suit and tie, driving in the East Village, was stopped by the police. There was no apparent reason for the stop and after finding out that he was a journalist and that another journalist was watching as they harassed him, they told him to be on his way.
But that was not the first time he was stopped, and unfortunately will not be the last. America calls itself ready for change. It purports itself to be a land of opportunity and equality. It claims liberty and justice for all. But in the end, it is Just US. And we must continue to fight.