Racism: Reading between the blue lines

Before I wrote the first word on this blog over five years ago, I made the decision to avoid the really hot and controversial issues, such as gun control, politics, and racial issues. However, today I’m making what is probably a one time exception with this piece on racism. But it’s important to me to air this, at least one time.

Before I begin, though, I want to be perfectly clear that I am proud to be an American and I still believe in this country, unlike some who’ve recently voiced opposite views. Current issues may not be popular, just, or they simply rub some the wrong way. But as Americans, it is our duty and privilege to make things as they should be. We have that right. Our forefathers certainly fought for their beliefs and they did it the hard way, and they persevered and they saw success for their efforts. Their blood, sweat, and tears made it possible for us to live in a country where it became possible for women to vote, slaves were freed, people are allowed to marry outside their race, and slowly but surely American citizens of the LGBT community of this country are also beginning to enjoy the right to marry whomever they please. And, our constitution allows the right to purchase and carry firearms if we choose to do so.

I grew up during the time when schools were segregated. It was a time when whites ruled supreme over water fountains, bus seats, the best seating in restaurants, and to be first to see medical professionals. In the south, it was common to have a “colored woman” come to the house once or twice a week to clean up after white families.

In our house, Annie Mae pretty much raised us kids. Sure, she was there to clean and do the laundry, but she also doled out orders that we kids had better follow, or else. Believe me, we adhered to Annie Mae’s rules. Homework was done before we went out to play and we washed the sweat-caked dirt rings from our necks before sitting down to dinner.

Annie Mae was black. Yes, we knew of the history even though we were Yankee transplants to the south. We knew of slavery and of the difficult and harsh lives black people endured. One of my uncles owned a house that Harriet Tubman used as part of her Underground Railroad. I was nearby when conspirators intended to blow up a courthouse where H. Rap Brown was to be tried for inciting race riots. I definitely knew the story.

We loved Annie Mae, unconditionally, and we didn’t see her as someone of a different race. To us she was merely a large woman with a smile as wide and bright as the keys on a new Steinway piano. She was simply a woman who answered a “help wanted” ad who was very good at what she did. She was family.

One day, when I was in the 7th grade, our studies were interrupted by the principal’s voice booming from the loudspeaker that hung above the wall-to-wall chalkboard. He told us that starting the next year, 8th and 9th grade students would be reporting to a new junior high school—what was then the “black high school.” Well, panic set in among many of the students and their families. There was a mad rush, one that I couldn’t for the life of me understand, to enroll masses of kids in private schools, even if it meant transporting children to the next county. All to avoid having to attend school with the “negra’s.” I’d even seen the smoke that rose from behind the trees at the old drive-in theater. I knew the KKK was over there burning a cross. My parents didn’t approve and did their best to keep that sort of thing from us. But we knew. All the kids knew. And we speculated who’s faces were behind the hoods. What I didn’t know was why they burned the crosses. What was so doggone bad about black folks?

The first day of school the following year was a big change for all of us. One of the first things I learned was that some of the black kids didn’t want to attend school with white kids any more than some of the white kids wanted to go to their school. But they didn’t have the option of tucking tail and running off to a private school because there were none for them to attend. They were stuck with us.

The kids, though, made the transition without a single problem. New friendships were formed, the sports teams were integrated for the first time ever and a few of them went on to win regional and state championships. Band members and cheerleaders worked things out among themselves, and life went on. Not the same for the parents, though. Some refused to allow their kids to attend school functions, band trips, and “oh, hell no” my child will not shower with “them” after gym class and football practice. But, the kids continued to move forward. We just didn’t see the big deal about the different races. We were all kids and we were friends.

Now, let’s turn a few pages on the calendar to my time with a southern sheriff’s office, and to the point of this piece.

The issue of race separation was alive and in full swing there at the sheriff’s office, and I was shocked, especially since many of my fellow deputies were some of the same people I’d known in high school and junior high. A few were on my football team. We’d worked together to win championships, blocking and tackling the same people. Again, we’d been friends.

Therefore, and needless to say, I was surprised and shocked to see the duty schedule and how the deputies were assigned. Simply put, blacks worked with blacks and whites worked with whites. Rarely were the two mixed on any given shift. As a result, the friendships we had known just a few years before were no longer. The races simply didn’t mix, not there anyway. And, the ranking deputy, a captain, on the “black crew” made it known that he didn’t like white people, and the same was true from the ranking white deputy, also a captain.

It appeared to me that the black deputies arrested more white people (for minor offenses) and the white deputies arrested more black people for minor offenses. I never checked officially, but that’s the way it looked. And, when the black deputies did haul a person of color to the jail, the offender more often than not received a lecture about shaming their race with their bad behavior.

Let’s turn a few more pages on the calendar to the time when I’d made the transition to a city police department. There, race didn’t seem to be an issue. Everyone worked together and we backed each other when the times were tough—black and white. However, I soon learned that the same wasn’t true regarding a few officers. Sure, everyone in uniform was okay, but not regarding members of the community. I first learned of this when I was working internal affairs cases. A citizen reported that a white officer was targeting black people, especially regarding traffic offenses. The citizen asked if we’d review the officer’s stats to see if his suspicions were correct. I did, and he was. This particular officer had never written a single traffic ticket for a white person. Not one. But the number of summons for people of color was through the roof.

I asked the officer about the stats and his reply was that he couldn’t explain it. So, I did what IA folks do, and it’s a dreadful assignment. I sent in an informant—a pretty young woman (he considered himself a ladies man). On their first meeting (she was wired), she brought up race issues and the officer quickly told her, “I hate n*****s. I see one coming my way and they’re gonna get a ticket. N*****s, n*****s, n*****s, I hate all of them.”

Needless to say, the officer lost his job. But what about all the people who’d received traffic summons? Worse still, the department had a huge image problem associated with racism. All it takes is one bad apple and the rot spreads through the community like a plague. And, of course, there were  similar issues of black officers doing similar things to white citizens.

I know many of you are aware of the shooting I was involved in. Well, when it was over and the smoke cleared … nothing happened other than a very brief, uneventful investigation that proved the shooting was justified and all was back to normal. Sure, there were a few who yelled and screamed police brutality, and a local newspaper editor also jumped on the too-quick-to shoot-bandwagon, but the majority understood that when a robber shoots at you several times, well, it’s okay to shoot back. Keep in mind, though, the man who shot at me and wound up dead was white. I, too, am white.

A few months after my shootout, an African American man took a gun inside a fast food restaurant and began firing at a young man who he thought had done some inappropriate things with his daughter. The victim was wounded but managed to take the gun from his attacker. At that same moment, a white police officer entered the business and saw a man with a gun. The video showed the man turn with the weapon, pointing it toward the officer, who promptly shot the man twice. Was the shooting justified? Sure it was, even though the man the officer shot was the good guy and had no intention of shooting the officer. Fortunately he lived, but had to undergo several operations.

Well, only a day or so had passed when a couple of Justice Department officials showed up at my office. They came in, shut the door, and explained they were conducting a civil rights investigation regarding the shooting at the fast food restaurant. They’d opened the investigation because a white officer shot a back man. So I showed them the tape. I gave them copies of the file, and I took them to interview witnesses.

The agents’ investigation went on for a long, long time, and they left no pebble unturned, no door unopened, and no person within a 50 mile radius unquestioned. In fact, they did everything they could to pry information out of people. It was obvious they only wanted to hear what they wanted to hear. In the end, they finally decided there was no violation.

But they’d barely gotten those words out—we found no civil rights violations—when they asked (I’m paraphrasing here), “Do you know of any corruption on the part of local officials? The Assistant U.S. Attorney is really pushing us on those types of cases. Anything you have would be greatly appreciated. We need to build some cases.” It was obvious the US Attorney was on a fishing expedition, searching for something to earn him a gold star or two. You

Anyway, the point of this rambling concoction is to point out that racism exists in law enforcement, no doubt. Just as it does within other professions and walks of life throughout the country. And it exists on both sides of the coin—both white and black.

I despise racism from any side, and I truly do not like seeing how race divides the nation. I especially don’t like seeing people exploiting or fabricating racial issues in order to sell newspapers, magazines, TV shows, etc., especially when they do it no matter how badly it harms others.

How serious is racism today? Well, I’ll leave that one for you to ponder. Remember, I don’t offer opinions on racism, religion, or gun control. They’re poisonous topics. Besides, my purpose is to provide factual information to aid writers in bringing realism to their stories.

Rodney King said it best, though, when he asked, “Why can’t we just all get along?”

*Please do not use this blog as a forum to argue racial or political agendas, gun control, religion, or cop bashing. Let’s keep the conversation civil, as always. Otherwise, I’ll simply delete your comments.