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Friday, April 29, 2016

Race, Gender and the Good Citizen

What does it say about the role of race and gender in contemporary civic life when I, a black woman, find myself unwilling to report a suspected black male thief here in the Starbucks? I have sat here, meeting with students, editing papers and enjoying the coffee-fueled ambiance for hours while watching a man who has also been here for hours. He caught my attention because he has been in and out, he has not bought anything, and he has looked with far too much intensity at the large bags and briefcases carried by many women nearby, including my own bag. I was finally reduced to moving my bag to a more secure spot away from him. He stepped outside at that point.

Shortly thereafter one of the Starbucks workers came over and rather pointedly asked me if the bag next to me was my own (does she not see how this large, supple red leather tote bag coordinates so neatly with my outfit and with the matching purse?). She didn't ask anyone else nearby about the ownership of their bags. When I responded somewhat hostily because of her focus on me, she mentioned that a woman had had her bag stolen this morning. She mentioned also that the police may have to be called. Uh huh, honey, I tell her that she had better just do that. This is a town whose police force is not known to be friendly to the relatively few black people who manage to live in it or pass through it.

A few minutes later back comes the young black man who has been recklessly eyeballing other peoples' property. He installs himself far away from other patrons but then seems to work himself closer to places where the person seems to have an unattended briefcase or bag. I give him a glare and out he goes again.  Now this man may just have an interest in ladies fashion tote bags. Or maybe he is a possible suspect in the theft. I don't know. But I am certainly fearful of doing anything that may result in the police being called on him since I would hate to see him injured or worse over suspicion of theft. Heck, *I* am liable to be injured if the police are called; I don't think that Starbucks clerk was too impressed by my righteous indignation over her inquiries. I respect and honor the job of the nations' police forces.  But I also know that for black people, police interactions are too often fraught with perils not always faced by others.

My mother taught me to be a good citizen, which includes things like looking out for other people. However, daily, seemingly mundane racial and gender realities completely confound and contort norms of "good citizenship." What, after all, is the content of good citizenship? In a volume that offers some answers to this query called The Good Citizen, edited by David Batstone and Eduardo Mendieta, a number of authors (including Judith Butler, Cornel West and Ronald Takaki) offer their thoughts on this topic. As the editors note in their introduction, citizenship stands for a number of ideals, including autonomy, self-legislation and a sense of civic solidarity.  Here is a truly crucial observation by the editors: “Citizenship secularizes the commandment to treat the stranger as one’s neighbor.” But here in the Starbucks, who is my neighbor? And how do I simultaneously look out for women patrons like me (for he seems to be focusing on women) who may become victims of theft, while looking out for a man of my own race who is either not a thief, and, even if he is, in either case he may be ill-treated (or worse) by the police.

This, ladies and gentlemen, is a morning in the life of a black woman having coffee in the suburbs.