Think not wearing a hoodie will save you from getting profiled?
Think it’s about fashion, and carrying yourself a certain way?
Racism and prejudice take many forms. When I first started my legal career 12 years ago, and I was assigned to my first felony courtroom, I can’t count the number of times that White male attorneys assumed I was the courtroom clerk as opposed to the prosecutor.
Even though I was in a suit and clerks don’t wear suits.
Even though I was at the prosecutors’ table working on the files that were distinctly different in appearance than the court files.
I would swallow the insult quietly and direct them to the clerk…which would usually result in them attacking me harder in the legal proceedings that followed.
Because there’s no way I could be a competent attorney. I’m really the clerk!
Or at least I should be.
My story is not unique. Education, money and privilege does not save you from ignorance.
So in this installment of Knowledge Trumps Racism, meet Lawrence Otis Graham, who was reminded of this the hard way.
Several weeks ago, in my capacity as President of the National Black Prosecutors Association, I went to a high level meeting of attorneys. After I spoke, one attorney was so impressed that I was articulate. Everyone there knew my bio and background — so there was no reason to be surprised that a decade plus long attorney at a major metropolitan office, who has been arguing murder cases, graduated from top nationally ranked schools, and represents a national organization, is articulate.
Other than the obvious.
Unless my stunning good looks that rival Tyra Banks had this attorney fooled.
It reminded me of an old Chris Rock skit, where he talked about then Secretary of State Colin Powell and how certain folks used to say with an air of surprise that “he speaks so well!”
Like what, did he have a stroke yesterday?
He speaks so well.
What’s he supposed to say?
“Imma drop me some bombs today??”
How did I handle it? Smiled, and guided the conversation in another direction with the other people that were present.
Like Kenny Rogers said, know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, and most importantly, know when to walk away. I could have made a snide comment with a bit of side eye, but that would play into preexisting stereotypes.
My point is this. Racism still exists. The protests that are going on, all the debates on television and radio are not adequately addressing this basic fact.
And maybe people are afraid to say it and acknowledge it. Maybe they don’t believe it. Racism is not some backwoods, trailer park idea. While the KKK’s numbers have dwindled, they still exist, in conjunction with other groups that share their ideals. In the age of “political correctness”, racist views are not as overtly shared. But racism occurs anywhere there are people. Which means Ivy League graduates can be racist, CEO’s can be racists, owners of basketball teams can be racist, and yes, so can police officers.
This is not to say ALL people are racist or even the majority. Absolutely not.
But you can’t look at events in a vacuum. Problems rarely pop up overnight. There is a history of simmering tension (starting with the ugly legacy of slavery).
And imagine having to deal with issues such as the ones Lawrence Otis Graham had to deal with in his personal life and as a father, watching your son be humiliated and be utterly powerless to help. Lawrence had his son looking like Erkel from Family Matters in an attempt to protect him, and he found out that meant nothing. After working hard, doing things “right”, and still seeing certain aspects of life boil down to the color of your skin, you get angry.
I channel my anger at the keyboard, and into constructive ways to effect change.
Not everyone has that option. Others go through their lives, angry, but don’t express it…until the proverbial saying of “one straw that breaks the camel’s back.” One act that strikes too close to home.
Knowledge trumps racism
. Before you dismiss racism as an antiquated idea or an overreaction of paranoid people, listen
to their stories. Listen
to their experience. The CEO of Starbucks, Howard Schultz
is doing just that. He’s starting a dialogue with his employees about the issue of race, because clearly he realizes the only way we as a country can get past this issue is to talk about it. He said “while it’s always safer to stand by the sidelines, that’s not leadership”.
I’ve seen those media outlets who cover these issues and discuss them at length called “race baiters”. Again, newsflash. You can’t “bait” what’s already there! Let’s address it together…or we shall perish, divided.