The group of 5 black teenage boys were whispering to each other and looking around as they walked in the store. I followed them from a distance and observed there actions. They were joking around like typical teenagers.
One of them took a bag of Fritos chips off the shelf and walked to the cashier. He paid for it. The rest of the group was looking at magazines. Once he completed the transaction the rest of the group walked out without with him.
As they walked out the door a police car blocked their path. Two officers got out the car and started to question the group. I could not hear the conversation; however based on actions of the boys the cops seemed to ask them to empty their pockets.
I stood at the door as Scott walked outside directly to the “scene”. He began talking to the officers. Eventually the group of boys was allowed to leave. The police and Scott spoke for another few minutes before they left.
Scott walked back in and before I could ask he explained.
“I called the cops as I observed them entering the store. They looked suspicious and I was not sure if they were up to something”, said Scott.
We had a rash of thefts in stores nearby but no one knew who was behind them.
”Usually when you see a group of African American boys you know there may be trouble,” Scott said casually like it was a part of my training as an assistant manager.
He realized what he just said and tried to “soften it up”.
“I did not mean it that way. People like you and other Caribbean people are different…” He stopped. I think he realized something was wrong by the look I had on my face.
The look on my face was the realization that I was profiling those black teenagers by observing them from a distance. Was I doing the same thing he was? I wondered if I would have done it if they were white teenagers.
Then I compounded the issue while trying to defuse Scott being uncomfortable.
”No worries. I know what you are trying to say”, I said to Scott.
It was a very stupid response. I just reinforced his beliefs and told him it was okay to think black men are up to no good.
I wanted to take back my words but could not.
I left work that evening upset with myself. I just threw my race under the bus. Black men are always suspects until proven innocent. I did the same thing that many non- black person did. I treated the group of boys like suspects. The worst part is I was a double suspect; a black man and an illegal alien.
There was a “black man’s code of conduct” that I had learned about within the first 2 years of living in the USA. The premise of the code is to do everything you can to “not be perceived” as a suspect. You address police officers and any other authority as “sir” or “ma’am”. Do not run with objects in your hand as it may be perceived as a gun. Do not speak loudly in front of white folks. If you are dating a white girl never argue in public as you will be perceived as being wrong. Dress modestly and not like a “hoodlum”. Do not look intimidating like the “angry black man”. Be friendly and smile. In stores and malls be very careful how you behave as you may be followed. The bottom-line is you must try to defuse situations where you are perceived as a suspect even when you are not. At first I laughed at this “code” but soon realize it applied to me about the 4th time I was alone on an elevator with a white lady clutching her bag. I was also followed around a few stores. I also realized that I had been following a similar code of conduct being an illegal alien. The difference was not to draw attention to myself because of my immigration status. In fact, I developed a “twang” to disguise my Jamaican accent. The more American I was the better the chance I had of been labeled an illegal alien if I was stopped by authorities.
I wanted to continue the discussion with Scott but it would probably draw more attention to me.
A week after the incident at the store an unarmed black man was shot in Liberty City by a white police officer. The cop claimed the man was reaching for a weapon when he shot him.
His name was Edward Wright. He was a deacon at a church in Liberty City and was well loved by people in that city. There were many testimonies of his kindness given by people interviewed by the various televisions stations. He helped many in the community. He was fondly known as “Deacon Ed”.
It was very upsetting as this man did not deserve to die. There were protests planned and the media kept “hyping” that there could be the possibility of riots. The media kept going back to the 1980’s riots in Liberty City because of a similar incident. Tensions were high in South Florida and Deacon Ed’s name was heard everywhere. The tensions boiled over into my neighborhood.
My next door neighbor Tyrone, who was black American, was extremely upset about the incident. He was married and had two young sons. He was not a man of many words but this incident had him “steaming” and talking. Our neighborhood was mixed with people of all races.
Our postal mailboxes were located in a designated area. While picking up your mail you may see other neighbors picking up their mail as well. It was a great place to meet the other people in the neighborhood.
That week Tyrone seemed to find every black person in the neighborhood at the postal mailbox to give them his perspective on the incident. He stopped me to talk about it. He was preaching to the “choir”. I agreed with his points including his very animated demonstration of how he believed the cop shot Deacon Ed. He explained contradictions in what the police said happened through their spokesperson. He wanted me to join him at one of the planned protests.
I was not going to protest. I did not want to do anything publicly that could bring attention me and possibly my immigration status. I told him I had to work but would try to make it.
The next day Tyrone was at the mailbox again. This time he was having a heated discussion with Chase, our white neighbor from Indiana. I did not want to interrupt them and tried to quietly get my mail.
”Why do you blame everything that goes wrong in the black community on the white community?” Chase asked Tyrone.
”You know what, you are right. I don’t blame the white man for all the wrongs. There are just a few things I blame him for. The kidnapping of people from their homeland, the rape of the captured women, the forced relocation of a people, slavery, mass deaths due to slavery and the slave trade, destruction of a people’s religion and culture, indoctrination on European religion and culture, indoctrination of Europeans as better and smarter, segregation, Jim Crow laws, public humiliation, lynching, police persecution, wholesale arson of black communities, intentional deficiency of education, inferior healthcare, institutional racism, discrimination in housing, inferior education, etc. Yes, you are correct. It is not fair to blame white people for everything. I blame them for just those few things.” replied Tyrone.
Tyrone had a look of relief on this face. Seems he wanted to get this off his chest.
Chase’s face was red with anger.
“But, that is no reason why black people should commit so much crimes.” Chase asked.
“We do commit more crimes proportionally but not as many as you may think. Our crimes are the ones the media tend to report and the fact is “black” stands out more than whites. The sensationalism of black on white brings rating for the media. Those crime figures never include “White collar crimes” that most white people commit. I am not condoning crime but let me ask you this, do you think those few things that I blame white people for make black people more desperate?
Chase had no response. The conversation was going nowhere and he walked away.
The tensions were everywhere. A few of my white co-workers mentioned to me how they felt. They believed an injustice was done but did not want to talk about it because they felt they were being judged for being white. They also feared offending anyone.
Later that week as I was driving to work a car with 2 young white men pulled up beside me at a traffic light. I thought they were asking for directions as their window went down and they tried to get my attention. I rolled my window down.
“F**** OJ Simpson, F**** Deacon Ed” they screamed at me. They were laughing as they sped off.