It is re-posted in light of the recent incident at Yale wherein a black male student, Tahj Blow, the son of New York Times columnist Charles Blow, was stopped at gunpoint by a Yale University security officer. The elder Blow wrote about the incident in his column.
Some follow up articles have indicated that the officer who stopped Blow's son was black. Some have even framed this as an "Aha" moment, as if this somehow makes detaining Blow's son at gunpoint less outrageous or Blow's criticism of the incident less meaningful. This critique of Blow caused me to re-think my own "while black" detention that occurred on an elite college campus in 2013. The guards who stopped me were black, also (though their work was overseen by a white supervisor). This does not cause me to feel less pain over the incident, or cause me to see it as somehow more reasonable. On the contrary.
Over-policing of blacks by blacks in authority is as old as the plantation slave system that popularized such practices in this country. Black overseers were sometimes empathetic to their fellow slaves and thus gentler than white overseers; this sort of in-group favoritism might be expected in such circumstances, especially in a climate where anti-black oppression and violence were the norm. However, all too often blacks given power felt the need to exercise their power more stringently than even the white slave owners. This often occurred in the name of normative conformity. Sometimes blacks with power and authority wanted to avoid the charge of being too soft on their own. At other times, blacks in authority wanted to show common cause with the white owners against blacks, hoping somehow to make themselves seem less black. This frequently undiscussed, longstanding in-group oppression is just another mechanism for the operation of racial oppression. What was true 150 years ago in the United States is still true now, even in our allegedly post-racial society. Racial bias and discrimination, both of the implicit and the explicit varieties, is based on dominant racial paradigms and power structures.While law enforcement calls for individual decisions by officers, those decisions are broad based and systemic.
I had a frenetic nightmare this morning between 6:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m., the period when I took back to my bed for a nap to help remedy my night of wakefulness. In the nightmare I was at a conference for black women lawyers in Los Angeles. The beginning was fine and felt for a time like a rather pleasant dream: I went sightseeing, recalling scenes from my Los Angeles childhood. I paid lovely visits to friends who were not at the conference and who do not live in Los Angeles in real life but who nonetheless were present (A and J, you were there, along with the baby doggy, walking along the beach outside your beach house).
Soon this sightseeing phase of the dream ended and I drove back to the conference site. I was early for the next meeting so I went to return some children’s clothes that I had bought nearby but now on close inspection saw that they would be too small for my daughter. I gave the still-tagged clothes to the clerk along with my receipt. He looked at them and frowned. “This isn’t our merchandise,” he snarled. “You got these from elsewhere and now you want a refund from us!” I was baffled and then I became angry. He came from behind the counter and grabbed me and dragged me to the back of the store, and another man came to help him. When I protested the clerk jabbed me in the arm with a sharp pencil, leaving a deep hole in my arm, a hole so deep and painful that I looked for it when I awakened. I screamed. Other shoppers came running over including other participants at the black women lawyers’ conference. They, too, began to protest, telling the man that he was mistaken, that I had no reason to do what he said, and that I was a lawyer and law professor. At that, the men let me go and threw my purchases back at me, still refusing to refund them. I left, vowing to get even in every way I knew how.
When the conference started up again I asked to take to the microphone. I then told what had happened to an audience that looked like about 500 women. They began screaming in anger and disbelief, and we made vows to stop the problem of shopping while black.
I awoke from the nightmare (or daymare in this case) with a headache that still persists and with a profound sense of anger and sadness. I had no doubt that my dream was triggered by WB’s—while black incidents--that happened to me and my family during the last few weeks. I had not intended to blog about this. I have other work to do, after all. I have, for example, piles of recent archive notes to write up and incorporate into my book. I planned to think more about the WB's later. But now that the WB’s are invading my dreams, I have to exorcise the demon.
I describe WB incidents as any disparate treatment of black people by persons with authority or under color of authority. One of the best known of the WB’s is driving while black, DWB, the phenomenon whereby black people are stopped more frequently by police than whites or persons of other races for real or imaginary minor infractions. My husband and I were stopped a few weeks ago by a policeman who passed slowly by us in the opposite direction, stared into our car, and then made a sharp u-turn and pulled us over. He approached and asked for my husband’s drivers’ license. My husband gave over his license and asked what the problem was and received no reply. The policeman and his partner then sat in their car behind us conducting what was I suppose a warrant check or checks for stolen vehicles. After several minutes they approached us again, one coming to the driver’s side window and the other standing right behind him with his hand perched on his gun holster. I wanted to take out my phone to record the interaction but I was too afraid to reach for my purse.
My husband again asked what the problem was and we were told that we had “shined our high beams” into the officer’s eyes. I had noticed as we sat there that the high beams were on. They had apparently been on all during our half-mile drive downhill to pick up our daughter from a school dance. We hadn’t passed any other cars, so it was not surprising that we didn’t notice. This is generally a pretty friendly town and when drivers detect high beams on in another car they give a quick flash, the almost universal signal to turn down your lights. The incident ended with us apologizing for having the high beams on and we went on our way, chagrined by the whole matter.
Another common WB is shopping while black, SWB, such as what occurred in my dream. It occurs with alarming frequency in real life, too. I discuss such an incident here in my letter to the New York Times, addressing an incident wherein actor Forrest Whitaker was falsely accused of shoplifting.
I encountered an entirely new WB just a few days ago that I’ll call RWB--reunioning while black. My entire family and I went back to reunions at my Elite Undergraduate School and got a nice taste of RWB. First, I was denied entry to my class reunion site by guards who somehow doubted the authenticity of my wristband, the mechanism for gaining entry into each reunion site. I was livid and humiliated, especially as they insisted that “everyone” was subject to this treatment. I have never observed this over the decades since I graduated, and people were flowing in without challenge or notice even as they gave me close inspection. A short while later, one of my sons, who also attended Elite Undergraduate School, and who was also wearing a wristband, was denied entry to another reunion site by guards who wanted to know “who he was with” and where he was going. My son had had enough when they asked him and his black friend, also a wristband-wearing graduate of Elite Undergraduate School, for identification. They moved past the guards, knowing that they had the right to enter and hoping that the matter would go no further. My lip quivered as my son related the story to me; this is how black people are killed for no reason, I thought.
I have no doubt that these two most recently experienced WBs, DWB and RWB, were responsible for my nightmare this morning. I have relieved some of the pain of the RWB incidents by talking with some concerned classmates about the matter and via communications with representatives of Elite Undergraduate School. I was grateful for these contacts, as one of the worst aspects of these situations is when people are aware of what happened to you and say Nothing. At. All.
I understand the silence in the face of WB incidents. I really do. It is hard for some folks to accept (or believe) that educated, fairly accomplished black people are subject to WB incidents just like all the rest of black people. Perhaps as bad as the Silent Sams are those who try to diminish the problem. One person said, in response to my reunioning while black incident, “Oh, you should be glad that they want to keep us safe!” I didn’t know who “us” was (though I could hazard a good guess at who he meant) and I didn’t know what we were being kept “safe” from (that, too, I’m sure I could figure out.) Another person chuckled, “Oh, it’s because you look so young! They probably thought you were sneaking in for beer.” I hardly knew what to say. I’d like to flatter myself that I look younger than my years. But I don’t come close to resembling an under aged party crasher. I didn’t have the heart to point out to this person that many of the people coming in without challenge by the guards were white youths who DID, in fact, look like under aged party crashers.
I suppose what is really sending me for a loop is that this whole WB thing shows no sign of abating. It happened to me when I was a teenager, and I thought the problem would disappear when I was older. But so far, no luck. I am too often under scrutiny by clerks, police and other authorities. So, I smile. I offer small talk. In short, I try to Make Them at Ease. I Am Nice. I am Black But (And?) I Am Good. I Am Not a Criminal. I Am Like the Other People Here. I Belong.