A few years ago, I was covering a school board meeting for an area newspaper, when I heard a white male school board member tell an African American mother that her concerns for the way the school district disciplined her son were not about racism. “Racism is over,” he said. “That’s all in the past.”
The response of the board member was not so shocking or surprising at that moment. The mother was expressing her desperation to solve her son’s problems, and the actions of the school district didn’t appear to be directly related to race. And, having interacted with the board member and knowing him somewhat, what I understood him to say is that he had grown and evolved to the point where he was more accepting and respectful of people of different racial backgrounds. So his actions were more of a surmise: as he had grown, certainly the world, too, had grown.
But not so fast! The assumption here is that this board member walks in the shoes of African Americans and that our experiences on a daily basis are at least similar. This is where I part ways with the school board member. Our experiences may be similar in that we all may go to WalMart or to McDonald’s or to Froogle’s or to the Shell station, but I would contend that African Americans are more likely to be stopped by law enforcement on their ways coming or going to any of these destinations. And sometimes for no reason but for the color of our skin.
Case in point, on July 4, 2007, I was stopped by a Bay St. Louis policeman for driving from the 400 block to the 500 block on the street on which I live. The officer told me that the reason he stopped me was because I had avoided a police checkpoint on the corner of Main Street and St. Francis St. - two blocks away from the intersection that I had crossed. He sent for a field sobriety test even though I told him that I had not consumed any alcohol.
As we waited for the field sobriety test, and as he held my driver’s license, he began to recognize my name and face. “You cover Bay High football; you’re the newspaper man,” he said. “I played football at Bay High. I remember you now.
“I can tell that you’re not under the influence,” he said. “I’m going to let you go, but I need to give you the field sobriety test since I ordered it.”
“If your decision is to waste tax payers dollars, that’s your decision,” I said as I got increasingly frustrated with the officer for delaying my trip to WalMart.
Maybe that school board member could have had a similar experience. However, an experience I had with Bay PD last summer (2019), I sincerely doubt a white citizen would experience or tolerate.
After my sister and I met at my son’s house to discuss the status of the sale of our parent’s home, she called me to tell me that there was a “four or five-year old boy” crying in the middle of the street, a football field distance away. I picked up my grandson and went outside to see what was going on. I met the boy and talked to him to calm him down. We stood under a live oak tree in front of the former home of my deceased parents, and I called Bay PD.
About five minutes later, I flagged down the approaching police car. Two Bay PD officers - an African American woman, who was driving and a white male - got out of the car, and I began telling them what was going on.
The female officer began talking to the boy. The male officer approached me. “I need to see your ID,” he said.
“I’m the one who called the police,” I said trying to understand why he was so stern with me.
“I need to know what you are doing here,” he said.
“I live in that house,” I pointed to my home two parcels away and across the street. “I was watching my grandson (who I am holding as we are talking) at the grey house over there.”
The officer chuckled as if to say, “There’s no way in hell you could live in any of these houses.”
“Are you going to show me an ID or.....?” he said in a more forceful, threatening tone. So I retrieved my wallet and handed my ID to him. He read the information on my license into a small microphone on the front of his uniform, and after a brief discussion, he returned my license.
Translated: In the officer’s eyes, I was considered a criminal until I proved to him that I wasn’t. Guilty until proven innocent.
For the record, I have called Bay PD a total of four times over the past two years (a break in into my car, trespassers at the home of my deceased parents and trespassers at a nearby vacant home), and three of the four experiences were handled professionally. I was not asked to present my ID as if I were living in South Africa during the era of apartheid.
Additionally, my wife and I were stopped by Bay PD while driving around the second, third and fourth blocks of Washington Street and Sycamore Street, surveying Christmas decorations. We have also been stopped by Bay PD during an after-dinner walk through our neighborhood.
And racial tensions are also showing up in everyday situations: Approximately a year and a half ago, I addressed a young man who told me that he had been dragged into bathrooms while attending a predominantly African American high school (suggesting that he was beaten up on a regular basis). He then went on to use a racist expression to describe former President Obama. As he turned red, trying to pull back the racist expression, I told him that his problem was that he was a “racist wuss” and a “racist ....” (another name you call a cat). That night he went on Facebook broadcasting that I called him an extremely vulgar expression, an expression that I don’t use.
Local governments have also been emboldened by acts of disrespect and exclusion. Locally, the Bay St. Louis City Council voted to not reappoint African American school board members, supporting the recommendation of the mayor to make the board all white, depriving African Americans a seat at the table.
This is not the Bay St. Louis that I know and that I grew up with. When I look back at our history at the brave citizens who encouraged participation and inclusion, like Mayor Larry Bennett who appointed Douglas Williams, an African American, to be chief of police in Bay St. Louis; Wilmer Seymour, Frank Ladner and J.E. Loiacano, educators and coaches who guided us with honesty and fairness; and James Ginn, a local banker who worked with us to help us finance college and our first cars, just to name a few.
I share my experiences because my wife and I are both professionals, and if we experience inappropriate behavior from people in positions of authority, what chance does a young man or woman have, who may not be able to express themselves as freely as us, if confronted by an ill-intentioned policeman or an adult with hate in their heart?
This is a potentially dangerous environment of superiority and exclusion, and, if allowed to fester, our problems, that may appear small to those who are not directly affected, could brew into a culture whereby an “I CAN’T BREATHE” moment is not as far away from us as we might think.
Silence is DANGEROUS!