“Why do you care so much?” said a white friend to me during a debate about suspect profiling. “Don’t take it so personally–the police aren’t after you in the black middle class. If you need something to be angry about, get angry at the young black males who commit the sort of crimes that make it so hard for the rest of you.”
There are any number of rejoinders to comments like this. I suppose I could do a disingenuous little reversal about “the young white males” wilding in suburbia; I suppose I could point out that his comment turned an issue of civil liberties and state force into a matter of moral uplift–not that I have anything against moral crusading, but it’s not exactly a substitute for constitutional protections, restrained use of force and good policing. But, bottom line, I’m really tired of being told that I take things too personally.
“The truth is,” interjected another friend, who is black, “that it is personal. Black middle-class citizens are stopped much more frequently than anyone else in the middle class. Middle-class blacks are a bridge between the segregation that still keeps most black and white neighborhoods miles apart, not just physically but conceptually. Most of us arrivistes grew up in black neighborhoods. We know how differently you’re treated when in public with white friends and when you’re alone or with black friends. We live strung between the annoyingly contradictory projections dumped upon us by the larger society: (a) that you know nothing about the privations of the inner city because you drive a BMW, and (b) that you should understand why driving a BMW marks you as someone who is most likely a common thief.”
Yes, I think, this might indeed be a tad personal. But the comments of both friends helped remind me that just because it’s personal doesn’t necessarily mean it’s any less a matter of principle. I think of yet another friend, who was arrested in Chicago a few weeks ago. Deborah is someone I’ve known since we were students in law school, some twenty-five years ago. These days she’s a law professor, a commercial law expert and the co-author of a textbook on contract law. Deborah was sitting in her car at a gas station when out on the street she saw police searching a car and patting down two girls and two boys who appeared to be Latino. As she put it, “My son, who wears his hair in dreadlocks, was stopped on his way back to school after spring break because the light over his license plate was out. I didn’t know why these teenagers had been stopped, but it couldn’t hurt to sit there, on private property, and just watch.” But one of the policewomen saw her looking, came over and ordered her to leave.