(I didn’t record the following incidents in my journal — I wasn’t writing often in my journal in the late 1990s — so I’m depending on my sometimes faulty memory for most of this one.)
In 1997 and ’98 (give or take a year), when I was the grocery manager at a supermarket in Jacksonville, Ark., I drove a 1974 Monte Carlo with dark tinted windows. Several white friends joked at me that it “looks like a car a black guy would drive”. Others used less complimentary language while saying basically the same thing. At least one African-American co-worker agreed that it was a “thug car”.
I’d bought that particular vehicle because I had little money and it was only $750, and I’d tinted the windows because it had no air conditioner. It was a solid, well-performing car for the most part. I was rarely pulled over by police however; I’m a fairly decent driver, and even then I didn’t break the speed limit willingly all the time.
◊ Black Cop, White Perp
Once I hit a fairly large pothole on I-30 that knocked the muffler loose. By the time I was driving into my (nearly all-black) neighborhood, the exhaust pipe was trailing on the ground and sparks were flying. A black police officer (North Little Rock) stopped me a few blocks from my house. He approached my window with his hand on his sidearm but visibly relaxed when he saw my face. He asked if I knew I was trailing sparks; I admitted I didn’t, but that I lived three blocks away and planned to fix the damage immediately. “You live here?” he said in surprise. After a further minute of friendly conversation, he said he would follow me home just in case the muffler actually fell off.
I felt like I’d gotten a pass because I was white — the first time I ever had that feeling. I could have been wrong, of course. He could have relaxed when he saw my face because I obviously wasn’t intoxicated, or because I’d had the forethought to roll down the window prior to his approach, or because both my hands were on the wheel, holding my ID card. He could have let me go without a ticket because he always did that when someone was obviously having car trouble. Maybe he always ignored the requirement for drivers to have auto insurance (I’d recently canceled mine because of a surprise 50% rate hike and hadn’t yet gotten a new policy).
◊ White Cop, Black Passenger
Another time — after using a combination of duct tape and bailing wire to “fix” the exhaust — I was leaving work at 8 a.m. when a black co-worker asked for a ride home; his car was in the shop. About halfway from the store to his house, a white police officer (Jacksonville) pulled me over. When he approached my window, he didn’t say why he’d pulled me over, but asked instead “Everything all right this morning?”
I nodded and said “Yes, sir”. My passenger didn’t respond. Both of us were dressed identically, having just left work: black jeans, white button-up shirts with neckties, and official nametags.
The officer leaned in, his face uncomfortably close to mine, and said to my passenger: “What about you? Are you all right this morning?” My co-worker said the same thing I’d said, but without looking at the officer; his eyes were focused on the street in front of my car. “Look at me when I’m talking to you, boy”, the cop said, without raising his voice, but with a little more edge to it. He was already moving away from my window toward the passenger side of the car.
Long story short, my co-worker was told to get out of the car, patted down, asked if he had any warrants outstanding, asked if he had any drugs or paraphernalia, and told to produce ID, which was called in to a dispatcher to check for warrants. Several times during the exchange, the cop said “I can’t understand you” and “You need to speak up, boy”, despite my co-worker’s speech being as clear as mine. As an afterthought, the cop asked for my ID. He looked at it, asked if the address was correct (it wasn’t), and handed it back to me with the advice to get the address fixed.
He never said why he’d stopped us. He didn’t ask me to exit the vehicle; he didn’t search my car or ask if he could.
At first, I wondered if my co-worker matched the description of someone police were looking for (“non-white male”), but then realized he couldn’t have seen us through the tinted windows. Then I wondered if my car had matched the description from a recent report. I suppose both are possible.
Again, I couldn’t escape the impression that I’d been let off easy because of my ethnicity, while my passenger had been targeted for his. When I started to say something to him about it, he said: “Let’s just go, man”.
The next night at work, other employees (almost everyone on that night crew was black) asked me about it — so I assumed he’d told them about it. “They didn’t search you?” “They didn’t even call in your license?” “He didn’t pat you down?” And so on. They weren’t incredulous, as I was becoming. Their faces were cynical; their voices sardonic. “Must be nice”, one of them said.
In my naïveté, I said: “What do you mean, ‘it must be nice’?”
“To be white”, one of them said.
◊ A Nazi And A [N-word]
This one frustrates me to no end, because I can’t remember the details; only the quote. I want to say it was at a nightclub or bar entrance, and that the speaker was a bouncer, but I can’t prompt any more about this from my memory right now.
I just remember having freshly shaved my head, and getting out of my car alongside a black man.
We were greeted with: “Oh, look. A Nazi and a nigger.”
There was no conclusion for me at the time, and very little of one now. In the first two instances above, there seemed to be racial bias or profiling at work, but either instance could have been explained another way. The last was probably a redneck trying to be humorous, with not enough working neurons to realize he was being offensive.
My five-and-a-half years in Arkansas were eye-opening for me, especially my time working in Jacksonville and living the broken neighborhood of Baring Cross of North Little Rock. Not just about race and prejudice, but about poverty, the indifference of the system, and my own limitations.
(There were many other instances involving race, ethnicity, prejudice, both the kind that made it easy to be a racist and the kind that made it hard to be. But these are the three in which my 1974 Monte Carlo was involved.)
EDIT, 2014.08.22: I edited the above to un-redact the “N-word” in the quote, as per a suggestion in the comments. I’ve always felt editing quotes, even for clarity, was just a tad unethical. When I first typed the above, I teetered on the fence quite a bit about that quote, and just barely fell on the “I’d better edit this” side. Richard’s comment below makes a lot of sense. It’s an ugly, bigoted, hateful word.