We live in “living groups” of 8 people here at Harvard, which means we have 8 bedrooms and a huge living/meeting room/kitchenette. At breakfast today, one of my living group members told of a potentially life-changing moment that occured thirty or so years ago. I’ll call him Ben.
An encounter with racism
Today, Ben is CEO of an almost US$10 million children and youth agency in Illinois. Ben is also black. He told us that he never encountered racism in his life until after he graduated from college. When he was in his early twenties, his grandmother died and Ben had to drive from New York City to Atlanta by himself to attend her funeral. He put $100 in his sock and $25 in his pocket. That was his worldly wealth.
He couldn’t afford to stay in a motel, so at 3AM he pulled into a parking lot and went to sleep. At 4:15 he felt the car shaking and he woke up to see a shotgun barrel pointed at him on one side and a revolver on the other side. Two white policemen were yelling at him to get out of the car. He got out and they told him that he had been speeding. When he said he had been asleep since 3AM, one officer said, “Are you calling me a liar, boy?”
Ben was so angry at the unfairness of this that he wanted to hit one of them. He thought if he was going to die, he should do what he could to go down fighting. But he held back. An officer said that if he gave them $50 they’d let him go with a ticket marked paid. He said he only had $25, so they made him empty all of his pockets. Seeing that’s all that he had, they took the $25 and issued him a speeding ticket for that amount. Ben was seething and thought again of hitting them, but he thought better of it.
He wrote a complaint letter to the state’s Attorney General and got a cheque for $350 with an apology. He never cashed that cheque and has it to this day.
The way Ben told the story, it felt like we were there with him and I’m sure the seven of us could feel our hearts beating faster from the sensation. Several of us actually had tears to wipe away. One of my group said that she was ashamed to be white.
The end of racism?
And then, there occurred… a beautiful moment.
A moment when we saw what the end of racism looks like.
Ben said to her, “You don’t need to be ashamed. You’re a nice person. Why, you’d have been one of the white folk who held lanterns to welcome us into one of the underground railroad stations.”
Beautiful. That’s the end of racism when people are considered as people. Although those white police officers were corrupt, Ben just thought of them as corrupt police officers. And the one who was ashamed was not white in his eyes, just a nice human being.
My parting thought – what if Ben had taken a swing at one of the officers to satisfy his rage? For sure he’d have been sent to jail and I’m pretty sure it would have been a fairly long time and for absolutely certain it would have changed his life forever and he would not be doing the good work he is doing today. He had strong emotions, but he mastered them. A lesson for us all.