In 1896, as the nineteenth century ended, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of ‘separate but equal” by a resounding 7-1 vote in the Plessey decision. In 1903, as the twentieth century opened, W.E.B. Du Bois, a founder of the NAACP, wrote in “The Souls of Black Folk” that the problem of the twentieth century is “the color line.”
A few years into the twenty first century, some folks say that the nomination of Barack Obama shows the “progress” that has been made with the color line. But over in Marianna, Florida, a junior high school teacher told his students about two weeks ago that “change” is an acronym for “Come Help A N***** Get Elected”, for which he received…. a ten day suspension.
The “color line” is still very much alive and well in America. It is true that institutional racism is neither as overt nor as prevalent as it once was. But I believe there is significant evidence that a large segment of white folks do not accept blacks, in particular, or most non-whites, in general, as “equal” to them.
Admittedly, I didn’t grow up in this country and so I was not exposed to the American version of the color line. And although there seemed to be a Philippine version built around whether you had Spanish ancestry, and if so how much, that did not prepare me for my first encounter of the third kind (contact) with the color line in this country.
That first encounter came quickly… within a month of arriving here. It was in St. Petersburg, where I was at my college campus with other freshmen about a week early for orientation. When my assigned roommate was a no-show, I hooked up with a black freshman who I met at a pool table and was in the same predicament.
If we did not find a roommate, one would be assigned to us and neither of us wanted to gamble. He was taken by the fact that I was from halfway around the world and I was taken by the fact that he was…well, black. We were both curious about each other. (During 18 years in the Philippines, there were only one black, and one half-black, student in my high school.)
Our dorm advisor and dorm counselor were black upperclassmen. My roommate Al was the only other black student in the dorm. Late one night, the four of us went to Mr. Donut to get off campus. We headed back to campus about 1 AM.
As we drove down a main north-south street, through a black neighborhood, there was a police car at a red light on a cross street on our right. As we passed it, one of the others cussed and exclaimed that we were going to be stopped. I asked if we were speeding. Another laughed and said no. I remarked that if we had not committed a violation then they were just being paranoid.
I was informed that we were guilty of a violation. I asked: if we weren’t speeding, what violation? Why, DWB, of course. DWB? What the heck is that? Then it came out: Driving While Black. My reply was something like: “Driving While Black… ? That’s bullshit!” They laughed at my outrage….
On cue, the driver advised that the police car was following us. I looked back and was quickly told not to do that. I remarked that the police car was a distance behind us, so maybe he just happened to be going in the same direction as we were. That remark was met by laughter, which irritated me because I still felt they were being paranoid.
Then the driver advised the police car was speeding up towards us. A few seconds later, he advised that the lights were flashing. Damn…we were being stopped! I was confused.
The driver, who was a senior, said he would do all the talking and no one was to say anything unless asked a question directly by the officer. And, keep all answers short and simple.
We were ordered out of the car. The officer asked the driver for his license, looked at it and then returned it. The driver asked if he had committed a traffic violation. The officer said no. The driver then asked why we were stopped. The officer replied that he just liked to know who was on his beat. I thought to myself: right…Officer Friendly here wants to meet and greet everyone on the main north-south street to get to know each of us. Did he have an apple pie for us too? I was steaming…
When asked where we had been, the driver replied that we were at the Mr. Donut. When asked where we were going, the driver replied that we were headed to campus. When asked if it wasn‘t too late to be visiting anyone at campus, the driver replied that we were students there. Now I noticed a look of surprise on the officer’s face and then heard it in his reply “You’re students there?” Do you have ID? We all showed him our college ID’s. Then, he told us we could go and to drive safely and watch out for drunks. We said goodnight.
Back in the car, I was cussing up a storm. The others said it was no big deal, it happened regularly and they just had to get used to it. I said that there’s no way I could get used to that, to which they replied that there wasn’t much choice unless you wanted to end up in jail or worse.
That was August 1970. Before that, I was intellectually a radical. That night, I became a radical emotionally. Thirty-eight years later, I’m still pissed off!
(Next Sunday: “I Led Three Lives”…but unlike the TV series, these lives were not at the same time.)