I’ve got this friend.
For the sake of keeping his real name anonymous, let’s call him Gerald. Gerald is black and looks like a genetic hybrid of an NFL offensive lineman and the Michelin Man. He’s about fifty years old and has been happily married for some time to a woman named Sarah (not her real name, either) who’s white. Gerald and Sarah have two kids (a daughter, 11 and son, 6) who are perfect blends of their parents in ways beyond their good looks.
Gerald is, by all measures of the word, a success. He’s good at his job. His family has everything it needs. I’ve always considered him to be a good father. However, he recently told me a story that confirmed he’s not only an exceptional father, he might be the gold standard in a world whose lawmen seem to have a guilty-until-proven-innocent approach to the African-American male.
Though he’s a stable provider today, Gerald’s past has its share of hell-raising and alpha-male-tomfoolery. He’s been in fights. He’s been arrested. Like most of us, he has opinions about the police and its purpose in society.
We had been discussing the recent events in Ferguson, MO (that saw unarmed teen Michael Brown shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson), when Gerald told me a story about being stopped by the cops for a traffic violation.
The incident began with the usual banter.
“License and registration, please.” The cop was white. Surveying the situation as a trained officer of the law, he no doubt saw Gerald’s massive black frame in the driver seat and two coffee-skinned kids in the back.
“Are these your kids?” The officer asked as he collected Gerald’s ID.
“Yes, sir. These are my kids.” Gerald replied.
“Where are you headed?” the officer interrogated.
“We’re heading home,” Gerald replied without hesitation.
The officer informed that Gerald had failed to adequately stop at a red light before making a right turn. He then retreated to his cruiser, where he ran the appropriate checks. At this point, Gerald’s son began to whimper.
“What’s wrong, son?” Gerald asked.
“Daddy, I’m scared.”
“Son, there’s nothing to be scared of,” Gerald assured. “The officer is here to make sure everyone follows the rules of the road, including Dad.”
A few minutes later, the officer returned. “These are your kids?” he asked as he handed Gerald his license and registration.
Gerald’s tone was calm and composed. “Yes, sir. Once again, these are my kids. I really thought I came to a complete stop, officer. But, if you said I didn’t…”
Let’s analyze this dialogue for a moment. A few questions come to mind: Why did the officer feel the need to ask a second time if the two kids in the backseat were, in fact, Gerald’s? Hadn’t Gerald answered already the question?
“What that cop thought about me didn’t matter,” Gerald later explained after I’d bombarded him with the above questions. “What mattered was that my kids understood that we hadn’t done anything wrong, so there was no need to be afraid of a police officer. It was important that they saw their dad maintaining a level of respect with the officer.”
While I applauded Gerald’s composure, I couldn’t help but lament my belief that he had been the victim of racial profiling. Granted, the officer may have legitimately stopped him for a textbook traffic violation, but Gerald having to twice claim ownership of his kids was a demand I can’t imagine having to appease myself. I
been in that situation. The presiding officer, without asking me for proof of ownership, remarked on my then four-year-old daughter’s resemblance to me.
I’ve been stopped by the police a handful of times in my life. Since I was in high-school, the old adage has always been: if you’re white and polite, you’re all right. I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that it’s served me well. Gerald had been polite. Yet because he was black, he had to throw an extra layer of respect just to get by.
I knew I was looking at an outlier. Gerald had the equanimity to turn an encounter with the law into a teachable moment for his kids. We’ve seen this situation turn for the worse, haven’t we? We’ve seen traffic stops end in animated displays of human buffoonery caught on the officer’s dash-cam and leaked to the web for all to watch and criticize. We’ve seen this story end in tragedy as it did for Michael Brown.
There is a crucial discussion going on right now about the plight of the African-American male and his relationship with members of law-enforcement. If only there were more Geralds to show us right from wrong.