When I was studying at American University, I used to live in a neighborhood called American University Park. It's a beautiful neighborhood in Upper Northwest, DC (an area also jokingly referred to as Upper Caucasia, because it is in the whitest section of majority black DC), known for some of its famous (in the DC sense) community members. Former Senator Phil Gramm (the turtle) lived a few blocks over from me, for example.
Now I recognized that I was no longer in regular DC. Though I was legally able to move about as any normal standard American should, I knew I had to do a couple of things. First, I made it a point to introduce myself to all of my neighbors (I was the only black person on the block...actually for at least two blocks for a while). Second, on my first trip to the grocery store, I discovered that there was a Metropolitan Police Officer (K-9 unit) who lived around the corner. On my way home, he was outside. I went right up to him, groceries in hand, and introduced myself. I told him (I wish I could remember his name; the kids were nice) that I'd just moved in around the corner, and that I supposed we would see each other occasionally.
For three years, I had no trouble whatsoever. In my second year there, a young black couple moved across the street from the officer. It was funny when we saw one another, because the meaning of the waving and smiles was clear: We are not alone. Yet, in my last year there, something happened, and it reminded me of certain realities.
I was walking from the Metro at twilight, knapsack slung over my shoulder, and dressed as preppy as always. A little less than a block from me was one of my neighbors (she lived in the basement apartment right under mine). As I raised my hand to wave hello, she had taken a quick glance back, made her assessment, and took off in a near run. Mind you, there was enough light to recognize people. And we'd been neighbors for almost two years at that point. I realized what was happening, and I kept walking home. By the time I got to our block, she looked back again, and ran the last bit of distance to our respective house.
When I got home, I decided to go downstairs and make mention of it. Ole girl actually denied taking off, and then she added that she didn't see me. And I noted that she was indeed correct; she didn't see me. She saw a black man, and a threat. She apologized (do you apologize when you've done no wrong?). I was polite and accepted, but I was reminded that no matter what you do, sometimes it is simply not enough to transcend perceptions and fears.
When I read that Henry Louis "Skip" Gates was arrested in front of his own home following a call to the police from a woman passing by thinking that Gates was breaking in to his own home, I immediately thought of all of the things I'd done in my neighborhood to avoid just such an incident. Had Gates done the same? Would it have mattered if he did? Why was there need of an arrest once it was clear that Gates was at home, and that the caller made a mistake? Was this caller a neighbor, and if so, how could she not recognize a fellow neighbor?
For all of this talk of a "post-racial" society, I think that it is silly. Of course we haven't transcended race. We have made strides that would have the heads of all our American ancestors spinning at the neck, and those strides have been good. Yet, for too many, crime will continue to have a black male face. And I will say that it pisses me off to no end the black men who help to perpetuate that stereotype. We, the law abiding black men, catch all the hell that should be heaped on the actual criminals, mostly because other folks haven't grown sophisticated enough to see the difference between a common criminal and say a Harvard scholar. Until that change happens, I don't want to hear a word about transcending race.
UPDATE (July 22, 2009): While checking out The Daily Dish, I came across this link to an essay that John McWhorter wrote in response to the Skip Gates incident. He put it in words that I both admire and understand, and I think he is right.