by Jay Parr
I had a nice article from Carrie all ready to publish—about food—perfect for the holiday season that basically begins this week. But then the grand jury decision over the Michael Brown shooting was announced and Ferguson, Missouri erupted into a new wave of outrage and protests and tear gas and pundit commentary, and my news feed became a discussion of racial inequality both in Ferguson and beyond (because I’m fortunate to have a friends list of mostly thoughtful people), and that was when I realized I needed to drag out this post I was too busy to finish back in the weeks after the shooting.
The killing of yet another unarmed black teenager at the hands of the police really had me thinking about the persistent and serious problems in our ostensibly “colorblind” culture. I mean, I’m glad it opened up a little bit of discourse about racism, and classism, and access to education, and the role of law enforcement, and the unfortunate necessity of code-switching—at least for a couple of weeks, anyway—but at the end of the day, yet another teenager is dead. Let me repeat that. Yet another teenager is dead. For the oh-so-grave offense of acting like a teenager. I felt like I needed to write something about that, but I hadn’t been able to find the right approach. Then it occurred to me.
Had I grown up black, I would probably be dead.
Seriously. Given my own teen years, had I been black instead of white, I probably would have ended up dead. Or in prison. Or both. I certainly wouldn’t have a master’s degree and a steady (if unglamorous) job in academia. No, I can thank my white privilege for all that.
Let’s take a look at the factors, here.
I was poor. When I was fourteen and my parents divorced, my father left the ministry and Washington DC to go do cabinetmaking in southwestern Virginia, and then ended up severely disabled after he broke his neck in a motorcycle wreck a few months later. He never provided a dime of child support that I’m aware of. The church in DC had provided our housing in a manse next door, but as it was part of my father’s compensation and he was no longer their pastor, it was decided that after the end of the school year, if my mother and brother and I were going to stay we would have to rent the house at market value. My mother had just finished nursing school in her late forties, and had almost no work experience (she had spent most of her adult life raising seven children), so there was no way we could afford to stay in that three-bedroom, two-bath house, or even in the racially- and ethnically-diverse, well-educated, upper-middle-class DC neighborhood of Shepherd Park. So my mother moved us down to Virginia to be near my father, and we bought a run-down fisbo in the crappy neighborhood where my father was renting an apartment. Even after she managed to get her Virginia nursing license, my mom had a hard time finding anything but casual work for quite a while. So that was how she supported my little brother and me for years. As a nursing temp. Finally she landed a steady job at a nursing home, but the pay was far from glamorous, and the benefits were nonexistent. None of us had health insurance for many years.
I lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Let me put it this way: The first night we spent in that house, a couple of the neighborhood punks got into a scrap right out front, and one of them ended up in the hospital with stab wounds. I have bleary memories of red and blue lights, squawking radios, and a line of people a few years my senior sitting on the curb in handcuffs, right below my window. That was our first night there. We would soon discover that anything not chained down would walk away, and that locked doors just meant the windows would get broken when someone wanted to come in and look for valuables. And every once in a while one of the old fire-trap houses would burn down. As if that weren’t enough, among school administrators and law enforcement personnel, my address itself was sufficient cause for them to assume my criminality. Thing is, we could afford to live there (well, sort of). My mom bought the house for $9,000 in 1980, and the sellers even financed it with no down-payment. They were a working-class family accustomed to doing things informally, so when we couldn’t make a house payment, a simple phone call was all it took to put matters right. With all that, buying that house was more affordable and more secure than even a crappy little apartment somewhere else in town. In short, we were trapped.
Whereas the neighborhood in DC was educated and genteel (and maybe even a bit pretentious at times), most of the adults in the new neighborhood had not finished high school. Those who worked had the kind of jobs that involved polyester uniforms with embroidered name patches, but much of the local economy was welfare, theft, and the black market of drugs and “hot” merchandise. Even with all that, the culture of racism was such that the mostly-white denizens of that neighborhood would have referred to my old neighbors with a plethora of xenophobic slurs and held themselves above their more educated and well-off counterparts by virtue of their skin color alone.
I had an undiagnosed and untreated mood disorder. Clinical depression and bipolar disorder both run in my family. I’m fortunate to have been blessed with the lesser of those ills, but left untreated (see “uninsured” above), in a hormonal teenager, it led to all sorts of fun. I was prone to sudden fits of self-destructive rage (e.g., hurling a broken bicycle chain at a motorcycle cop—thank heavens I missed, and he didn’t see it), and equally self-destructive apathy (“So suspend me. I’ve got a book I’d rather be reading anyway”). Sometimes my affect was so flattened that people thought I was on drugs when I wasn’t, which was merely a little awkward when that was the school guidance counselor, but could be a little more dangerous when it was some gung-ho rookie cop who was obviously scared shitless of the neighborhood he was patrolling.
I looked like a tweaker. That’s a meth addict, for those of you who haven’t been educated by Breaking Bad. I was scrawny, partly from genes and partly from poor nutrition. Food was scarce at times, and I never had lunch money at school (I spent it on smokes instead). I had a tendency to chain-smoke and drink a lot of iced tea when I was hungry, leaving me hangry and over-caffeinated. So not only did I look like a tweaker, scrawny with the sunken cheeks and hollow eyes, but I was also twitchy and cranky. Especially if I was out of smokes. Add that to a strong sarcastic streak and a complete lack of respect for authority, and it was a recipe for trouble.
I smoked. Duh. I started smoking at fourteen, because to not smoke in that neighborhood was to be a pariah. A misfit. A narc. A pussy. Better to learn to smoke than to invite the all-too-often-physical disdain of the abused and abusive teenagers who were my peers in that neighborhood. But the thing is, nicotine is also ridiculously addictive, so I was a smoker everywhere I went. Even when I was somewhere that my smoking only further labeled me as worthless trash (i.e., pretty much anywhere that wasn’t my neighborhood).
Later on, I switched to hand-rolled cigarettes, which had a tendency to look like joints. Especially when you got down to the dry crumblies at the bottom of the pouch. That got me into quite a few … shall we say, conversations … with law-enforcement personnel.
I got suspended, and skipped school, on a regular basis. Smoking got me suspended from my junior high school several times. Losing my cool with a teacher got me a vacation from my first month of high school. Sometimes I would just skip school with a pack of the other neighborhood kids, and we would shoplift and/or get someone to buy us beer. Then we would go wander along the railroad tracks, or trespass in derelict buildings or desolate industrial areas, and vandalize stuff, and just generally act like young hoodlums. Other times I just wouldn’t wake up in time (see: untreated depression), so I would just stay home and read books.
I dressed like a hoodlum. Most of what I wore came from charity bins or through some other hand-me-down channel, and I wore it long past the point that pretty much anyone else would have thrown it away. To give it some character other than just hand-me-down rags, I would decorate everything with magic markers, safety pins, scraps of random fabrics, and anti-mainstream (or anti-establishment depending on how you saw it) buttons, slogans and symbols. I got into punk rock a little bit, and the “fashions” that went along with that scene gelled fairly well with what I was already doing, so I added a few re-purposed dog chains and some metal spikes to my style somewhere along the way. This was the ‘80s, in southwest Virginia; it wasn’t a style that was cute and retro then. It was generally viewed as a pretty loud “f*** you” to people in positions of authority.
I usually carried a knife. Part of it was the influence of the neighborhood. Part of it was because in high school I got into theater tech, and a knife is a handy tool there. But it still meant that pretty much every time I came in contact with law enforcement (see: neighborhood) I had a knife in my possession. One of them kind of looked like a switchblade. Among my peers, a knife was just another accessory, as essential as smokes or a light (butane, matches, a Zippo if you were really swanky). But I can’t tell you how many times I was interrogated about what I was “planning to do with that knife.”
One of those times I was walking to get smokes and found a cop behind an old VW Beetle with his headlights pointed at the open engine cover. I knew a bit about old Beetles by then; we’d had several, and my mom had long since enlisted me as her designated VW mechanic (see: poor). So I went over to see if I could help. Turned out it took me five minutes to figure out the problem and a twist of a knife blade to fix it, but the cop had been obviously suspicious of me since he saw me approaching in the dark, and after that girl drove off in the convertible Beetle her daddy had bought her, the cop turned on me and interrogated me about that knife. For a little while I honestly wondered if I was about to spend my first night in jail. I will tell you that the whole time I was excruciatingly careful not to make any unexpected moves. I’ve tried to write that story several times, but it always just sounds too contrived.
I took suspicious shortcuts. Before I got my motorcycle, I walked pretty much everywhere I went, and I was always trying to shave a few steps off my route. I would cut through brownfields, derelict service alleys, along railroad tracks, between houses. My neighborhood had a lot of abandoned spaces that made good shortcuts, but merely being there was suspicious. And trespassing.
I rode a barely-legal motorcycle. When I got a little older and could gather the means, I got my hands on a cheap old ugly motorcycle for transportation. It turned out the mufflers were too rusted to pass inspection, so I fixed it the least expensive way I could, which was with a set of little loud rattle-cans. So even my “car” shouted that I was trouble.
Sometimes I would hang out with some other young rat-bikers. I’ll never forget the time a gaggle of us were hanging out around our bikes at a roadside parking area in the city park not far from my house, when a preschooler came running past us on a bee-line for the road. I reached down and snatched her up before she could get run over, then scanned for an adult only to see the horror in her mother’s eyes. I played it cool, with a smiling “Is this yours?” But I can only imagine how that could have played out if nothing else were to change but that I had been a young black man.
I was a smart-ass to cops. Or really, to anyone who was pushy about wielding authority. I could get into my complicated relationship with my authoritarian (but also rebellious) father, but I’m just going to own it instead. I had problems with authority. Specifically, I had problems with authority being wielded in any way that I considered inequitable or arbitrary. I still do, for that matter, but these days I’m older and mellower, with better outlets for venting my frustrations. And better mood-stabilizing pharmaceuticals. In those days, I was more prone to fume in silence right up to the bursting point, when I would lose my temper right at the teacher or vice-principal or cop I was being confronted by. As I mentioned, It got me suspended more than once. How it never got me in handcuffs, I have yet to explain.
The list goes on. For example, I got all my binge-drinking out of the way before I was of legal age (which was 19 at the time). I stole road signs and decorated my room with them. Pretty much all my friends were holding weed at any given moment, and most of my acquaintances in the neighborhood were holding something stronger—meth, or acid, or pills, or hash, or sometimes heroin. Between insomnia and my involvement in theater tech, garage bands, and bar gigs, I was often out and about in the ungodly hours, either walking the crappy part of town or out on my ratty motorcycle. I had the vocabulary of a sailor. And I had a strong sense of social justice—a strong sense of the injustices often perpetrated by those with more power on those with less—and I wasn’t good at hiding or tempering my outrage at those who had the power. Even though they were also the ones with the power to make my life much more difficult.
So, with all this, how did I never end up in jail? Or dead? Or with a criminal record? Given the times I argued with cops, or got pissed off and threw something in the presence of a cop, or failed to restrain my body language from letting a cop know I thought he was being completely unreasonable, had I been a black teenager, who lived in a black neighborhood (or worse yet, who lived in a white one), the statistics show that I would have been much more likely to have been detained, arrested, imprisoned, or even killed. By the authorities whose job is ostensibly to ensure our safety.
But I was white. I had grown up in the rural Midwest and mainstream D.C., so I didn’t have to code-switch to sound like the people on TV. Or the white cops I encountered. I wasn’t rich, but I was still given a certain benefit of the doubt in some situations, simply because I was white (I really don’t like to think about what might have happened had I been a black teenager when I pulled out my knife under the hood of that old VW). When I got a little older, I could cut off my ponytail, put on a collared shirt, and blend right in with the country-club-and-beach-house set (or at least the country-club-and-lake-house set). Because I was white. Had I been black and tried to do that, I’m pretty sure someone would have assumed I was an employee.
But in a more general sense, my whiteness meant that, clean-cut or not, flat-broke or not, in an industrial brownfield or a moneyed neighborhood, I could smile at a cop and say hi, and have it be assumed that I was innocently taking photographs, or taking a walk, and not that I was “up to something.”
The population of Ferguson, Missouri is 67% black. However, the mayor is white, and the police chief is white, and 94% of the police force is white. Black citizens are subject to 86% of the traffic stops, 93% of the arrests, and 92% of the searches (despite the fact that of those searched, whites were 65% more likely to have contraband). Another report shows that black citizens in Ferguson are about twice as likely to be searched, and about twice as likely to be arrested, despite the fact that whites are half-again more likely to be carrying contraband. Nationally, black citizens are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of their white counterparts, according to NAACP data, mostly for nonviolent, drug-related crimes.
Don’t tell me we’re a colorblind society. The numbers prove otherwise.
When I was thirty and divorced, and finally managed to escape that neighborhood, I moved up to New York City for a while. One of the things I though I was escaping, in my naivete, was the racism of the South. I had been there a few weeks when one day I saw a black teenager on a pay phone, having what was obviously some kind of lovers’ quarrel. He stopped mid-sentence, and having apparently been hung up on, got flustered and slammed the phone down. As a passerby having only witnessed what I had overheard, I thought it was a perfectly normal response to what appeared to be happening. Too bad there also happened to be an NYPD cruiser passing by at that exact moment, because within seconds the poor kid, still keyed up about his relationship drama, found himself slammed over the hood of a squad car with his arms pinioned behind his back, and two white cops labeling him as a criminal. My relationship with my first wife having been what it was, I couldn’t begin to count the times I had slammed down a phone, public or private, every bit as hard as that poor kid had just done. But I can count the times I found myself handcuffed over the hood of a police car for having done it. Precisely zero.
Further reading: “The Science of Why Cops Shoot Young Black Men”