Following in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, a new dialogue with a 400 year old theme has been making the rounds in the African-American community, especially in the homes of black families with sons.
Similar to the sexual primer most mothers or fathers give their daughters that basically adds up to, “keep your panties up and dress down till you’re at least 40 and out my house,” the conversation these African-Americans have been having has centered around the hot button topic of “racial profiling” and more specifically the steps black families are taking to protect black boys and men from those who so often view them as inherent threats, often for something as simple an inoffensive as wearing a hoodie.
These parents are busy instructing their sons how to deal with the police and with the inevitable sting of racial profiling when it happens to them. Not if but when.
A black family having “the talk” with their sons at the dinner table
As I read these articles making the rounds in the USA Today, Wall Street Journal and Essence, I thought about the times in my life when I had been “racially profiled” and automatically treated as a criminal guilty until proven innocent by virtue of my race and gender.
The funny thing is that two of my most memorable experiences with racial profiling outside of the criminal just-us system occurred in Wal-Mart stores. One in a store right outside of Houston in Pearland, and the other at a Wal-Mart in Louisiana.
Ten minutes from my home in Pearland, there is a 24-hour Wal-Mart Supercenter, directly across the street from a 24-hour Super Kmart. The fact that these stores where both 24 hours made them two of my favorite late night shopping destinations.
One night along with two friends I went to the Wal-Mart Supercenter for a little late night shopping. A few days prior to my trip I had purchased a new Nokia electric drill from a friend of mine that needed a set of drill bits. Entering the store I made a mental note not to forget the drill bits. At the time I was in the process of installing a new Hollywood type vanity in the restroom of my home, which was the reason I had purchased the drill to begin with.
After spending an hour or better in the store buying a bunch of things the likes of which I can no longer remember me and my two friends made our way to the counter with a fully loaded basket.
What I do remember was that the everyday low prices added up to a $166 dollars worth of merchandise. I further recall that the entire time I was in the store, the only store employees or sales associates in Wal-Mart that I saw were three middle age Caucasian ladies.
Now by way of disclaimer, I’ll freely admit that looking back at me and my two friends compared with these three women an alien could’ve been forgiven for surmising that we were two sets of different species from different planets.
Steeped in urban street culture and dress, me and my two buddies were decked out in the latest urban fashions, and one of my friends had at least six gold teeth with both arms covered in tattoo ink, not to mention our strong use of slang and ebonies. The flipside to our dress and demeanor was that these three white ladies working at the store on this particular night were as plain as homemade vanilla.
After paying for my items I pushed the basket full of goods to the door. As soon as we went through the door a alarm sounded. Realizing the cashier must’ve failed to remove one of the theft proof bar codes, I calmly rolled the basket back up to the counter.
The lady at the cash register apologized, looked through my bags and realized that she had failed to take the bar code off the $6 pack of drill bits which she promptly did. To error is human. No big deal right?
Thinking that was all there was to it, which it more than likely would’ve been – had it not been for our unique make up coupled with the peculiar place black males hold in this society., peculiar in that one is always forced to prove that he isn’t a bad guy, or that he belongs. Just as Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates had to prove he wasn’t a burglar and that it was his home that he was trying to enter and not someone else’s as the 911 caller suspected.
Following the alarm incident I rolled the basket to the car and got ready to leave. That was when I noticed one of the ladies come out of the store and began to gather baskets. Perhaps this wouldn’t have been strange if it hadn’t been 3 AM in the morning. While in the process of gathering baskets I saw her slip a small yellow post-it note pad out of her pocket and discreetly write down the license plate number of our vehicle.
Knowing this could only mean one thing, an accusation of theft and that we would be even more suspect if we left the store, I got out the car, approached the lady and asked her why did she write my license plate number down. Petrified she began to protest that she didn’t write it down. So I said, ”Lady, I saw you do it. Pull that yellow pad out your right pocket.”
Still she continued to deny it, “no sir, no sir” and all at once she sprinted back toward the store as if I had suddenly morphed into Freddie Kruger, Jason, the Bogie man, and Norman Bates all in one.
Not satisfied with her denials which were really a insult to my intelligence when I had just seen her taking down the license plate number, I grabbed the three bags of everyday low priced junk and went back into the store and tossed it all on the counter, “everybody black don’t steal, I don’t gotta steal a damn thing, go through all that shit!”
The three ladies huddled together, eyes wide with fear, nearly hugging each other for protection, no doubt expecting some type of violent confrontation. “Please leave, please leave sir, we’re not accusing you of stealing anything.” Which totally ignored the fact that one of them was just out in the parking lot writing down my license plate number, so obviously they were accusing me of something.
Finally I accepted the fact that trying to talk to them was about as productive as trying to reason with a bolder in Yellowstone National park, so I grabbed my bags and calmly walked out the store.
We had made it about two blocks from the store when four police cars with emergency lights on and sirens blazing passed us by at a high rate of speed on their way to apprehend the bad guys. Seeing our car they made a hard U-Turn and pulled us over.
By now I was so upset that I completely forgot what my own parents as well as hard earned experience had taught me about dealing with the police. Without thinking I hopped out the car (I was riding in the back seat) and began walking up to the police cars ranting and raving with my arms flaying wildly over my head. I don’t think that I have to tell you that this is a very good way to get yourself shot and killed by a police officer in Houston. The officers were so startled that instead of getting out they remained in their patrol cars while one of them talked over the PA system, “Sir, please calm down and return to your car, calm down and wait for us to come to you.”
I returned to the car and watched through the side windows as the seven or eight officers took defensive positions on either side of the car with their hands resting on their gun handles. Ready to add me and my friends names to the long list of young black men who have been murdered by police officers in Harris County.
Finally, one of the officers approached the window and I tried as best as I could to explain to him what was going on. To his credit he wasn’t a asshole about the whole thing, and simply said, “I’ll tell ya’ll what, lets all go back to the store and we’ll try to get this sorted out.”
So with four police cars in tow we returned to the Walmart. Back at the store me and my friends stood around the car with three or four officers while the other two or three went into the store to talk to the ladies who had begun all this mess in the first place.
After about ten minutes, the officer doing most of the talking came out of the store and said, “Everything’s okay, it seems like it was just a big misunderstanding. You guys can go ahead and leave.”
Big misunderstanding, huh? What the officers didn’t say was that three middle age white ladies saw three young black guys shopping at 3 in the morning and automatically assumed we were engaged in some type of nefarious criminal activity. lt was as if on this particular night, these ladies’ worst fear had materialized and they had their first encounter with the proverbial “bad nigger” which was in itself a reason to call the cops and huddle in fear. When you think about it, this is the same thing that George Zimmerman did to Trayvon Martin when he saw a young black man in a hoodie and assumed he was a burglar, another bad nigger in his good neighborhood.
My second brush with racial profiling happened at another Wal-mart in Louisiana. Late one Sunday evening after attending a seasonal crawfish festival with several friends, I was in the lead car in a five car caravan headed back to Houston when I spotted a Wal-mart right next to the highway.
Being somewhat of a green-thumb, I like to keep a well groomed and landscaped yard, something I got from my mother. At the time I needed a sprinkler for my lawn and I also needed a tape cleaner for my tape deck.
Entering the store, I went straight to the electronics section, selected a tape cleaner and paid for it. Which was only seven or eight bucks. If you’ve ever been to a Wal-mart, Target, or the like, then you know that they require you to pay for anything you purchase in the electronics section right then and there in that section. They also give you a receipt for your purchase.
After leaving the electronics section I went to the lawn and gardening area and selected a lawn sprinkler, then walked to the main registers at the front of the store to pay for it.
But before I could do so, the cashier, another white lady with a puggy red face in her late fifties, demanded that I open my other Walmart bag that was stapled with a reecipt on it. I refused, not because I had stolen anything but because I had been to enough Wal-mart to know that wasn’t standard procedure. A brief stand-off ensued. The cashier called for security.
Honestly, I didn’t care if she called Sam Walton. I knew I hadn’t stolen anything. But sometimes you can win a battle and lose the war.
And due to the fact that I was in a different state than my own and that I had about 30 people in five separate cars outside waiting on me, I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle and went ahead and opened my bag. But not before shaking my head at the lady and what her request implied.
However, that was the day that I realized that from the day I was born till the day I breathe my last breath in this country, I will always and forever be considered an “inherent threat.” Guilty until proven innocent. Columbia University Professor Marc Lamount, author of “The Classroom and the Cell: Conversations on black life in America” said concerning the psychic toll racial profiling has on black boys and men: “Seeing what happened to Trayvon was traumatic. There needs to be a conversation about what it feels like to be followed in the store, chased out of the mall, or to not be welcomed on the other side of town.”
I agree. I also believe that any parent that doesn’t have “the talk” with their sons about what they can expect to encounter in this society is doing them a severe disservice, one that can potentially have fatal consequences.