‘Your Silence Will Not Protect You’

Originally published Aug. 21, 2003 on All Facts and Opinions and on LA Progressive; I am rerunning this to give you something to consider on this Election Day

atwood one race

Affirmative action is a sticky subject for me. The Progressive Left tends to back “race”-based preferences in certain institutions: The idea, many liberals say, is to achieve equal opportunity in schools and the workplace for groups of people who lag behind economically because of past and sometimes present mistreatment by the majority. That is an admirable aim. The intentions behind it are good. But my conscience does not allow me to hop on board the AA train.

Many of the difficulties I have faced in this life can be traced back to the fact that the color of my skin is brown. That leads people to categorize me erroneously, make unwarranted judgments about me, insist that I speak and behave and think in proscribed fashions, underestimate me, and far worse. So I am aware that something must be done to stop this sort of abuse.

An example: Not long ago, while driving along in Baltimore County, Md., I saw flashing lights behind me. Knowing it was a police officer, I quickly pulled over to the side of the road. Getting nailed by cops happens a few times each year for me. Believe me, I know the drill.

I immediately tried to assess the situation while remaining calm. (Cops don’t like it if someone gets upset — an upset or frightened person must be guilty of something, right?) A checklist ran through my mind: I wasn’t speeding; I take great pains not to exceed the speed limit. During lane changes, I signalled properly. I did not go through any red lights or stop-sign intersections. By the time the officer made it to my car door, I was completely at a loss.

Calmly, I asked the officer what the nature of my crime was. First, he looked surprised: this person wearing a baseball cap was female (I nearly always do, and that damn hat is notorious for getting me called “Sir”) and respectful in tone. His posture relaxed, and he politely indicated that one of my car’s rear taillights was not working. No big deal, I thought, heaving a sigh of relief as I carefully went for my driver’s license and registration, which the officer checked out via the computer in his car. I had no worries about that: For all my bluster, despite my civil disobedience experiences and expatriate philosophies, my record — driving and otherwise — is clean. But then, when he returned to me, the cop shined a flashlight into the inside of the vehicle, first to see what was in the back seat, and then to examine the contents of the front.

“May I inquire about what you are doing, officer?” I strained to remain calm and sound sweet.

“Just having a look,” he answered. “What’s that?” He pointed to a wad of aluminum foil lying on the front passenger seat.

I explained that the foil had been the wrapping for a fast-food burger I had eaten prior to driving. About a third of the sandwich remained.

“I’ll have to have a look,” the policeman said, adding after a pause, “Ma’am.”

I asked why.

“It could be something illegal, ma’am.”

I swallowed my sudden feelings of anger and humiliation and handed him the crumpled item, which he examined. At that point, I couldn’t bear anymore, and tears began to roll down my face.

The cop opened the foil, saw the remains of a partially eaten hamburger, grimaced, and then turned his attention to the quiet, weeping woman before him.

“All right, ma’am, you can go,” he said. “I won’t write you up, but you should get that light fixed right away.”

Tell me that demeaning encounter wasn’t about or didn’t involve DWB — the dreaded “driving while brown.” Given the number of cars I see zipping along the highways and byways with malfunctioning headlights and taillights, what motivated that man to pull over someone he assumed was what society would label a “black man”? What made him instantly assume — even after redetermining my gender, not that a person’s sex should have anything to do with the presumption of criminal activity — that I would have to have something illicit in my possession?

Don’t tell me that this sort of thing happens to everyone: It does not. Folks pulled over for a traffic violation generally don’t have their cars searched as a matter of routine. Loads of people have fast-food wrappers and such in their vehicles. They do not have to reveal the contents of empty or partially empty packages. But I did. Why?

I have no problem with the color of my skin; in my opinion, it is pretty (I ain’t a beauty, but eh, I’m all right). And I am as proud of my African ancestors as I am of my European, Native American, and Cuban ones. Leaping to the assumption that I am any one thing is unjust, and in my Heinz 57-Muttley case, erroneous to boot. This member of the one race — the human race — does not want to be judged by melanin for any reason: not for “racial” profiling, not for college scholarships, not for preferential or derogatory treatment of any kind. And that is why I can not support affirmative action: If pigmentationism is immoral in cases of “racial” profiling, then it is always immoral.

That said, I am put in a difficult position with lefties who insist that AA is the way to go to rectify past discrimination. I know full well that pigmentationism — “racism,” “bigotry,” whatever — exists. I know it causes suffering. Having felt its sting, I can not and will not inflict it upon any other human being for any reason. For every Clarence Thomas, there is an Allan Bakke. I am no fan of US Supreme Court Justice Thomas, but I know he traveled a tough road to get into the dangerous position where he sits. But as much as it is obvious that something must be done to heal the still-open wounds of systematic prejudice, I can not justify causing difficulty for another person using the rationale that “your dad had it easier than my dad” or “it’s our turn now.” All people are my people. The way I see it, when skin color is the issue, everyone should be treated equally, always. And race is nothing but a speed contest.

That is a simplification of a painful, complicated quandary facing society, I know, but my conscience just won’t allow me to support affirmative action.

The San Francisco Bay View, a newspaper that caters to area residents who define themselves as African-American, addressed the issue of affirmative action while urging its readers to vote in the then-upcoming California recall election.

It has become popular among some Blacks to turn their noses up at participation in the electoral arena. –€œThat’s being part of the system,–€ they claim. –€œThat’s playing the Man’s game.–€ But the Oct. 7 recall election should give them pause to reconsider.

On that date, not only will Californians be asked whether to dump Gov. Davis, and if we do, who should rule in his place. But Proposition 54 – the so-called Racial Privacy Act – one of the most racist propositions that we have seen in a long time will also be on the ballot.

To ignore this election is to provide right wing ideologues with a dream come true. A chance to overturn a legal election by taking advantage of an extremely unpopular governor and to sneak into the California Constitution an amendment that would ban the state from –€œclassifying–€ or collecting information on a person’s race, ethnicity, color or national origin for the purposes of public education, public contracting, public employment and other government operations.

I don’t agree with the Bay View‘s views on AA (and I didn’t support Prop 54 instigator Ward Connerly at all). But the paper was correct in urging its readers to speak their minds — however they feel — at the ballot box.

This particular California election is crucial: There is the controversial proposition, of course, but there is also the question of who will govern over the state.[Gray Davis was recalled and Arnold Schwarzenegger ended up in the top spot for two terms.]  It seems counterproductive to me to stay silent against The Man when the stakes are so high. The presidential fiasco of 2000 shows that corrupt politicians and business people will go to any lengths to stifle voters’ wishes and to get what they want. Why help them?

Speak out — clearly and loudly. When the bad guys try to silence you, get louder, don’t give up. As poet Audre Lorde is famous for saying, “Your silence will not protect you.” Vote. Vote. Vote.

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