Black & White: Occupying the Same Space and Living In Two Different Worlds

My Dear Readers,

      Will we as a nation ever come together?  Will we ever be able to respond to the vast and growing racial divide that separates us?  Have we reached the limits of our endurance?  Will it continue to matter?

       How does a situation seen by peers of two different racial groups seem so different?  Both groups respond from their own perspectives. Neither is wrong…Both are different.

Below is such a story…

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Dear Visible Man,

I am looking for feedback regarding my response to a situation that occurred one month ago.  I feel that you and I share some similar experiences, so you may be able to understand my concerns.   Like you, I am an African-American man, I am educated, and I work for a high tech firm in the Puget Sound area.

I am also from the southern United States—I grew up in Arkansas.  I attended segregated schools and was dealt with harshly during the integration of white only schools back in the day.

Like many other African-American men, I have had negative experiences in my interactions with the police and as a result, I do my best to avoid interaction with them.  I noticed that when I drive past a police cruiser, my heart rate increases, and I watch the rear view mirror closely until the car has out-distanced it.

When a police cruiser pulls up behind me, I know he is running my license plates.  Although I know that I don’t have anything to worry about, I am a ball of twisted nerves until he pulls away.

The few times I have been pulled over by the police, I have kept my hands glued to the steering wheel and clearly narrated all of my movements. I have been following the Five Rs of Relief model and I have been implementing them into my daily actions and behaviors.  I want to thank you as I feel it has strongly impacted my life.

Recently, while driving in alone at night in an isolated area of a white community in Seattle, I was almost t-boned by a police cruiser that came out of nowhere.   The only thing that prevented the accident was my ability to swerve out of the way.  Needless to say, I was very upset.

Here’s what I’m really writing about.   As I drove away, I noticed that the police cruiser was 10-12 car lengths behind me.  I was not angry, but I felt I had to do something.  So, I pulled my vehicle over and waited for the police cruiser to approach and in doing so I waved him over to stop.

The police cruiser pulled over.  The driver got out of the car, and the other officer also got out and stood nearby.  I informed the officer of my concern regarding his actions.  The officer acknowledged he was in the wrong, thanked me for being alert, and apologized for the distress his carelessness had created.

He extended his hand, which I accepted.  I then returned to my vehicle and continued on my way.  At the time, I was thrilled about the way I handled the situation and how I handled myself.  Like I said, I was not angry.  I explained myself in a calm and rational manner.  I had resolved the issue.

Here is where it becomes quite interesting.  When I tell the situation to my friends who are also of African-American descent, they react in disbelief.  I have received responses such as:

  • Have you lost your mind?
  • Do you have a death wish?
  • You are an educated man, why would you do something so stupid?
  • You must think that because you are educated that the police will treat you different.

I have also mentioned the incident and shared it with my coworkers who are of Caucasian heritage.  The responses I’ve received from them has been very different.  I have received comments that include the following:

  • You did the right thing.
  • Good for you, to stand up for your civil rights.
  • You see, this shows that not all cops are bad.

I am confused by the difference in response and perspective.  I have been in therapy for 9 months following the loss of my spouse Dorothea.   We grew up together and were married for 35 years before she passed away due to cancer.  In talking to my therapist, who is also of Caucasian heritage, he was excited about advocating for myself.

As time has passed, however, I do not feel comfortable about what I did.  I have two adult sons, and I would never have encouraged them to do what I did.

What do you think about this? Do you think I did the right or was I being foolish given the circumstances?

An Educated Black Man

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Dear Sir:

First, I want to extend my condolences regarding the loss of your beloved Dorothea.  It is clear that you continue to grieve the loss of what was a loving relationship.

Second, I want to extend my appreciation for your use of the Five Rs of Relief.  I am glad to hear that the model has had a positive impact on your life.  However, I must question whether you are clearly interpreting the model as you move through the various steps.

It appears that given the distinctive and extremely different reactions between your friends, colleagues and therapist, you are now having second thoughts about the situation and how you handled it.  This perception is reinforced by your statement that

“I have two adult sons, and I would never have encouraged them to do what I did”.

The comments of those you have spoken to reinforce the fact that although that blacks and whites often occupy the same physical space and breathe the same air, they actually reside in two separate worlds.  The majority of black people in America do not trust those who wear the badge, and for good reason, given the history. On the other hand, the majority of white people in America view the police as public servants entrusted to “protect & serve.”

When it comes to racial conflict, this perceptive is reinforced.  In a recent Pew Research poll (8.18.14) regarding the police shooting and ongoing racial unrest in Ferguson, MO, 80% of blacks state the situation “raises important issues about race.”  This is in comparison to 47% of whites that indicate that “race has been getting too much attention.”

In your specific situation, I can appreciate the concern of your friends who are disturbed by your actions, but I disagree with the idea that you were “crazy” or “stupid.”

I do not believe that you were being foolish.  However, I believe that in your actions, you did place yourself at serious risk of harm and injury.  Although there was a good outcome, please do not pat yourself on the shoulder for your “good deed.”

It was by the grace of God that you encountered two police officers that although in the wrong, maintained their calmness and professionalism.  I am sure they were shocked to be flagged down by a black man at night in an isolated area of a white community, and at the fact that they needed to maintain that calm as they were being chastised.

It is a blessing that these police officers were secure enough within themselves and did not handcuff or arrest you on a frivolous charge of obstruction or resisting arrest.  In fact, had there been a physical encounter resulting in injury or death, there would had been no other witnesses.

As you have cited my theoretical model of the Five R’s of Relief (respite, reaction, reflection, response and reevaluation), let’s revisit the model beginning at reevaluation.  Ask yourself the following:

  • Following the near collision with the police cruiser, did I take a respite (step away)?
  • Understanding that you felt calm in your actions when speaking to the police officer, did you own your reactions? Especially having just avoided a major collision?
  • Having flagged down the police cruiser at night in an isolated area, were you clearly being reflective? What were you thinking and feeling?
  • As you stood alone out there in the dark speaking to the officer who was being watched by another officer standing in a defensive position, were you being responsive? Do you feel that this was the safe place to share your response?
  • More importantly, understanding what you have learned from your reevaluation of the situation what would you do differently next time?

It may be that due to your education, position and status in life, you may want law enforcement to view you as being different. You may also feel that your complexion should not be a consideration for the protection that you as a tax-paying citizen should receive. Martin Luther King spoke about this in his “I Have A Dream” speech:

“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.’

However, that day is not TODAY.   When you step out of your vehicle and flagged down the police, the police officers saw a BLACK MAN.   One officer took a defensive stance.  It was only after talking to you that they did not perceive a threat and therefore could relax and end the interaction with a handshake.

The racial history of this country reinforces the fear that other races have towards black males.  Although black males cannot control or mitigate the internalized fears of others, we can and must maintain a posture of vigilance so that we, like the police officer, return home alive to our families.

Concluding Words

Mr. Educated Black Man,

My professional instincts tell me there may be more to this story. There is something that just does not hold for me as I replay your story over and over.   On one hand, you appear calculated in your movement and vigilant in your interactions with law enforcement, but I find it questionable that you would openly place yourself in a vulnerable situation. As I replayed your comments red flags arise:

  • You are grieving the loss of your spouse.
  • You are meeting with a therapist.
  • You acknowledged that you would never encourage your adult sons to take the actions that you did.

My concerns leave to me to question whether, given the scenario, you reached a point where you smothered your feelings regarding law enforcement. Were your actions an unconscious consideration for a potential “suicide by cop”?

I am concerned that you placed yourself at risk. Instead of exiting the vehicle, you could have filed a report with the watch commander of the precinct in which the incident occurred.  Why didn’t you consider this prior to exiting the vehicle?

If I am correct, there are internal questions you must want to resolve so that you can respond differently if a similar situation occurs in the future. When you next meet with your therapist, I would encourage you to actively pursue this line of questioning.

If I am in error, then there is nothing to it.   However, given the scenario being presented, it is something that I ask you to consider.

The last interaction terminated with an acknowledgement of responsibility and handshake with the police officer.  Let’s not allow the next one to result in condolences to your sons for the loss of their father.

Best regards to you,

The Visible Man

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