After reading Seth Mnookin's piece in The Crimson, I became somewhat upset. Mnookin was correct in saying that both racism and classism are powerful and negative forces in our society. But sadly enough, race still transcends all--class and educational status included. Who said those kids were lower class? Those kids that Mnookin called "lower class Black kids" could very well have been the children of Harvard professors. Class means nothing. Had the rowdy Harvard students Mnookin spoke of been Black, they probably would have received much more than a "boys-will-be-boys" chiding.
Regardless of intelligence, talent, morality, or income, a Black person in American will surely experience the bitter taste of racism and prejudice throughout his or her lifetime. He or she will be treated differently by law enforcement officers, store owners, and employers. Being from a Washington, D.C. neighborhood that has been riddled by drugs and violence, I surely would not call myself "privileged." But the fact that I made it out of that environment and have succeeded at Harvard should have some positive effect on how I am perceived. However, nothing--not even a Harvard education--can change the way that a Black person is perceived in American society.
Three weeks ago, I was returning, with another Harvard senior (who happens to be black), from Cambridge Rindge and Latin High School where we teach an SAT prep workshop. I was parking on Walker Street right in front of the Comstock section of North House. A Cambridge police car had been following me for a block, but I though nothing of it. When the police car came within five feet of my car, its lights went on. But before I could even think about why I was being stopped, two police cars with lights flashing and sirens blaring came up behind the first car and a fourth police car came tearing around the corner and sped the wrong way down a one-way street, and stopped in front of my car to block any potential escape on my part.
As what seemed like an army of officers approached my car with their hands on their guns, I became frightened. I had been through this before, but each time it happens, I cannot help but fear for my life and safety. Almost like a reflex reaction, I put my hands in plain view and instructed my friend to do the same. Soon, a flashlight was blinding us and an officer was at the window asking, "What are y'all boys doing here?"
In the forced respectful tone that many Blacks learn to use with police officers, I replied that we attend Harvard and that I live right here in North House. Unconvinced, the officer scrutinized us as another officer was calling in the license plates. Having noticed many people in North House staring out of their windows, I pointed to the dorm and waved, attempting to get one of my housemates to come vouch for me and, if need be, witness what might happen to us. No one came downstairs, but a few waved back.
We were then ordered to produce Harvard identification cards. I watched the police officer grab his gun as I slowly reached for my wallet. (I had learned to reach for my wallet slowly after having a .9 millimeter pistol placed at my temple during a "routine traffic stop" at age sixteen). After a close examination of our pictures and our faces, the cards were returned. We were then offered, not an apology, but an explanation. It turns out that a Black male had committed an armed robbery in Cambridge earlier that afternoon, and, naturally, we are suspects.
Never mind the fact that I have out of state license plates, Harvard stickers all over the car, and we were parking in front of a college dormitory on a quiet street. Those officers never considered the possibility that we might be honor students at Harvard on our way to law school and medical school. They never considered the possi8bility that we have never been in trouble with the law. None of that mattered. We were Black, we were male, so we fit the description. So why shouldn't they have sent a fleet of police cars and have the officers trip away our dignity in front of our peers?
I often wonder what was going through the minds of those who sat in the windows staring at this incident. Did they think that I had committed a crime? Had I fulfilled some stereotype that was buried deep within their minds? Or were they just waiting to see what would happen, watching the drama unfold? This was hot, however, some police drama, this was my life. And, once again, I had my pride assaulted, my dignity stripped, my privacy invaded, and my life threatened--all because I was Black.
This was certainly not the first time something like this had happened to me. Believe it or not, I am used to this type of treatment whether it be in northeast D.C. or in the Quad. In fact, similar situations arise everyday for Black people in America, be they blue-collar workers or Harvard graduates. Racism knows no class or educational status. Whether it entails being followed by a storekeeper, refused a ride in a taxi, or harassed by a police officer, the prejudice is real.
Had a White person committed an armed robbery (and I am sure that some do) I doubt that white people, Harvard-educated or otherwise, would be arbitrarily and embarrisingly interrogated on the street by a battalion of officers. That would be some outcry, some condemnation. That would not be just. But, for us, it was just another day in the life. Roger Fairfax '94
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