A few years ago, I lived in San Francisco for a number of months. I’d left my position as senior pastor of a congregation and was trying to figure out what to do next. One afternoon while walking to a coffee shop on Divisadero St., I noticed a hip-looking young black guy walking alongside me and in front of us a younger black guy dressed in jeans and a t-shirt. Suddenly two white plainclothes cops got out of an unmarked police car and ordered the younger guy to raise his arms. While one of the officers blocked the sidewalk, the other one lifted up the young man’s t-shirt and patted him down. The kid protested, saying, “I wasn’t doing anything!” The cops laughed and got back into their car and drove away while the three of us—me, an older white guy, and the two younger black guys—walked into the coffee shop together. The young guy was trembling and asked the barista for some water. The other guy told him that we’d seen what had happened. He then began to commiserate with him, calling it an incident of Walking While Black, which then led the three of us to recount from our own perspectives what we saw happen which then led to talk about Driving While Black and Shopping While Black.
I’d come to the coffee shop in order to write about something that had happened to me a couple of nights before this incident: I’d been out with a friend and after saying good-bye was walking home along Geary Blvd. which is pretty dark at night due to the many trees blocking the light from the street lamps. Nearing the Cathedral, I realized I was the only person walking on that stretch of the street. I then saw a woman coming down the hill. When she got within about thirty feet of me she looked up and noticed me for the first time. She quickly stepped off the sidewalk and walked in the street until she’d gotten around me. I was taken aback by her action. I wanted to yell out to her, “Hey, it’s OK; I’m not going to hurt you!”
Of course, she hadn’t seen me; what she had seen was the silhouette of a tall male walking toward her. She had rapidly assessed the odds of me being a danger to her and then made a quick decision to avoid me. At first I was indignant: “Don’t you realize who I am?!” Then angry: “How dare you make assumptions about me!” And then sad: “Why are you afraid of someone you don’t even know?”
Then I realized that I’d done the very same thing many times in my life and as I continued home thought about how this happens to black men all the time. Countless times over the years I had done just that: made a judgment about a man, usually of color, often young, and presumed they would likely harm me, so walked out into the street. I could always rationalize it by saying that I did the same thing when approached by rowdy white men, or that the instinct for self-preservation had prompted me to do what I did, or that people of color assess the same cues and make the same suppositions in order to look out for their own wellbeing.
I find it interesting that on my way the coffee shop to write about this, I witnessed firsthand how black men, especially young ones, are subjected to the stop-and-frisk policies of police departments and how racial profiling exists not just on the institutional level, but on the personal level as well. And not just on the street, but in schools and workplaces, too. To have witnessed it up close like I did; to see the look of fear and indignation on that young man’s face and his anger afterwards trivialized my experience with the woman. It also made me realize that I must be vigilant and try to the best of my ability not to make assumptions about anyone, anywhere, and any time.
Then, maybe, someday, I’ll more often be able to judge people for who they are and what they do and not by their outward appearance.