About fifteen years ago, I was part of a group of mid-career professionals, four white and one black, assigned to a grad school project about racism. As we prepared for our presentation, the black man, a senior leader at the University, shared a personal story about being arrested for something he didn’t do. At the police station, he was handcuffed to a chair and interrogated for hours.
I liked and respected this man and had no reason to doubt his word. And yet, his experience was far outside anything I’d ever heard or experienced. I believed he had been arrested in a case of mistaken identity but handcuffed to a chair? How would police get away with something so blatant? He must be exaggerating. No one questioned his story directly but we didn’t include it in our presentation, either. We exercised our privilege as the majority to veto the idea.
Two years later, I was a new supervisor of the front desk staff at a fitness center. One of the employees, a young black man, had recently graduated from college and was looking for a job in his field. John* was a great mentor to our young members, often spending personal time in the gym, before or after his shift, playing basketball with them.
One day, instead of seeing John arrive for work, I received a phone call from his girlfriend telling me he was in jail; arrested for an unpaid traffic ticket. He hadn’t been given a court date and didn’t know when he’d be released. Instead of calling me, he planned to disappear, too embarrassed to explain his absence once he was released. He didn’t call his mother because knowing he’d been arrested would break her heart.
My classmate’s story had prepared me for this challenge and I asked my boss if I could to drive 25 miles to the jail in the next county to find out what was happening. When the Japanese-American woman expressed surprise that a white person recognized a possible case of racial profiling, I told her about my classmate.
“Yes,” she said. “Go. Do whatever you can.”
When I arrived at the jail and asked to speak to John, I was directed to a chair outside a window with a telephone receiver on the wall. Just like in the movies, John eventually came into the room on the other side of the glass.
As he slid back a panel covering the window, before we could see each other I said, “John, it’s Carolyn. I’m going to talk to a deputy about getting you out of here.”
“Okay. Thank you,” he said. I will never know how embarrassing it must be to have your new boss come and talk to you in jail.
“Did they say when you’ll be out?” I asked.
“They expect you to just sit behind bars, with nothing to do, not knowing when you will get out, and all for a traffic ticket?”
“I guess so,” he answered. “They have books here so I’m just reading and waiting.”
Outraged, I said goodbye and went to the information desk.
“I’m John Martin’s boss,” I told the large, middle-aged deputy who stood behind the counter. “When will he be released?”
“He has to have a hearing first,” the man said, after checking the computer.
“Okay, when is the hearing?”
No hearing had been scheduled yet and he didn’t know when it would be. He didn’t seem surprised or concerned.
“Well I need him to come back to work,” I said. “Who can I talk to about scheduling the hearing?”
“Hmmm,” he hesitated a moment, then looked at a calendar on the desk and said, “How about tomorrow at nine a.m.?”
Still outraged, I held my tongue, thanked him politely and left. Later, I wished I had asked to speak to John again. It turned out no one even told him about the hearing until just before they brought him into court. I imagine he wondered what happened when I spoke to the deputy.
When I called his girlfriend to tell her I planned to attend the hearing, she asked to ride along. On the way, she told me that, although she was white, she knew how young black men can be treated in the justice system. Her father, a police officer, was killed in the line of duty.
We waited in the courtroom through a few other cases before John was finally escorted by a guard through a side door, wearing an orange jumpsuit with his hands in cuffs behind his back. Shocked at seeing him treated like a criminal, I smiled encouragement before he turned away from us onlookers and toward the bench.
The judge asked if John had his checkbook and enough money to pay the fine which I believe was around two hundred dollars including late fees and such. Yes, he had his checkbook but not the full amount, because he hadn’t found a fulltime job yet after graduating from college.
“Okay,” the judge said. “Can you pay seventy dollars today and the rest in two payments on your next two paydays?”
After agreeing to the arrangement, John was escorted out of the courtroom and we made our way to a bench in the hallway to wait for him. Processing a person out of jail takes a while but eventually, John went to the clerk’s window near our bench and paid the seventy dollars.
When we stopped for lunch on the way back to work, John said he was at a stop sign when a police car came up behind him. When he continued down the road, he was pulled over and eventually arrested for an unpaid parking ticket. It seemed the officer had run his license plate for no reason. After lunch, I told John to go see about getting his car out of the impound lot and come to work the next day, assuring him that none of his coworkers knew about his ordeal.
I used my white privilege to press for John to get a hearing date and he probably got out of jail sooner than if I hadn’t been there. But I wasn’t there to “rescue” John from the situation. I believe I was there to be a witness to other white people who, like me, could not relate to such a situation or believe our supposedly fair justice system is so often unjust.
I’ve told this story a few times over the years, to individuals and in my presentations to white audiences about racism. Maybe you’re already thinking what many of them say.
“Well, I hope he learned not to ignore traffic tickets in the future.”
Let’s think about that for a minute. Do you have a twenty-three-year-old son, nephew, cousin or friend who has done careless things? If that young man neglected to pay a ticket, would you expect him to be arrested and thrown in jail, with no hearing scheduled? Would he be reluctant to question the officer or the jail staff, in fear of being mistreated? Would he be reluctant to call his parent? Do you worry that he will be arrested, assaulted or even killed by the police?
In the years since this incident, I’ve heard many stories like John’s, too many to be a coincidence. There’s the pastor who was raised in an affluent family and never experienced an overt racist incident until he was a college student leaving a bar with other young black male friends. When their car wouldn’t start, they raised the hood to look for the problem. In no time, he found himself face down on the ground being handcuffed by the cops who’d been called to investigate a suspected car theft.
There was the man who was waiting for a city bus on a suburban corner when a police officer stopped to question what he was doing in this neighborhood. A passerby had called to report him loitering.
When the officer asked why his hair was wet, he pointed to his house, “Um, I live here. I just got out of the shower and I ride the bus to work.”
I left the job at the fitness center after a few months and I don’t know what became of John. There’s a very good chance he was denied a job or an apartment in the future due to his arrrest record. And so the cycle of unequal opportunity begins.
What can we as white people do about this pervasive problem, which has existed since Columbus discovered America in 1492?
Believe the stories of racism told by people of color, both minor incidents (called micro-aggressions) and major. Be ready to intervene when you witness such things, even just to record them or call for help.
Easiest of all, be aware of your own biases and actions. It’s a natural human tendency to be attracted to people who are most like us, by gender, ethnicity, religion, neighborhood or skin color, but there’s nothing stopping us from expanding our horizons once we are aware. Smile at people and say hello. Your lack of indifference will be noticed and you will discover that people who are part of a minority group you believed was unfriendly or “all alike” are as individual as you.
*Names in my blog are changed to protect the person’s privacy.