A few weeks ago, I walked into a home improvement store to buy a drill so I could build a bicycle rack in the garage of the condominium I own in a mostly white, middle-class South Bay neighborhood.
As I stood there, trying to decide which drill to buy, I noticed the same clerk walk by me three times. Soon, a male voice announced on the store public address system that "security was needed in tools." In a matter of seconds, I was surrounded by three zealously helpful employees.
In the same aisle, of course, were three white men who had been browsing longer than I.
This sort of experience happens to me often.
The only reason is because I am black.
To be sized up, judged and categorized as a thief or someone violent, all in seconds, is degrading. To have someone make a decision about you, simply because of your race, is, in some ways, like having a birth defect. It's something I can't do anything about. But it causes some people to steer clear of, or think less of you.
Some people might say I am just being paranoid, that men of color commit more violent crimes than white men do. They might tell me that I should not be so sensitive, that I am too thin-skinned.
But I don't think so, especially because the ugly episodes continue to happen to me and to other young men of color.
Consider, for example, the Charles Stuart case in Boston, in which a white man claimed that he and his pregnant wife--who later died, as did the couple's unborn child--had been attacked and shot by an unidentified black man. Stuart's desperate plea for help via a car telephone was captured by a television crew working on another story and made his case national news. It appalled the nation and prompted some Boston politicians to renew their calls for the death penalty. It made Charles Stuart a hero.
Meantime, police in Boston conducted "stop and frisk" searches of scores of young, black men until authorities turned up a suspect who looked "most like" Stuart's alleged assailant.
The only problem, authorities have said since, was the Stuart attack was all a hoax, awful and now inexplicable because Stuart himself has committed suicide.
His legacy, however, remains, for he used a widespread, public fear of random attack by young men of color to gain sympathy. That fear almost allowed to him to go free after committing what authorities now say was a terrible crime. That fear also almost implicated an innocent man.
So am I being too sensitive when I worry about the smaller slights that occur so regularly to me? Tell that to Willie Bennett, the man arrested in connection with the Stuart murders.
Am I too thin-skinned? Tell that to the scores of young black men stopped and searched with no probable cause in connection with the Stuart killing. That could have happened to me or any other young black man in America.
It is common to hear blacks who hold professional jobs talk about waiting for a cab in New York for an hour only to see drivers pass them by for white fares.
Me? I often see women in elevators clutch their purses a little closer when I get on. I've even had individuals and couples in downtown Los Angeles cross the street when they see me approaching; they cross back when I have passed.
We young men of color are an endangered species. We occupy the bottom of every socioeconomic scale from joblessness, to the infant mortality rate. We live in a society that seems to place no value on us as humans:
* Almost one of every two black men is out of work.
* I am almost twice as likely to die a violent death as my white neighbor.
* Forty percent of all men in prison are black.
* A recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a man in Harlem has a worse chance of living past age 40 than does a man in impoverished Bangladesh. The authors, Dr. Harold P. Freeman and Dr. Colin McCord, declared Harlem a "disaster area."
And I'm paranoid?
I'm not defending criminals; I'm not saying throw caution to the wind. I am saying that to judge someone as potentially violent simply by the color of their skin is a primitive fear fed by the media and ignorance.
Crime and drugs in our inner cities have nothing to do with race. They have everything to do with the vicious cycle of poverty. An elderly friend of mine put it eloquently when he said: "If you take a community of rats and give them a way to provide food and shelter for themselves, they will build a nurturing community. But if you take away their means of survival and provision, they will feed on each other in an attempt to survive and eventually destroy their community."
Yes, there is a problem of violence in poor neighborhoods. Until we can provide more, positive role-models for young men, it never will go away. Until we can deal with poverty and the inequity of wealth in America, we will keep having problems.
But until that time, I can testify that it is brutally destructive to any human to be judged by your skin color and not by your character.
Most men of color, who live in high-crime areas, want to provide a safe environment for their children. They want to be productive members of society. They want to be accepted as valued members of communities. Instead, we are bashed by a society that has painted its own portrait of us. We are painted as destructive, violent elements for which there is no hope. We then are cast aside to make our way in an endless cycle of poverty, which only a few survive.
A year or so ago, I walked into a convenience store to buy a snack. Inside, there were 10 or 12 white youths, playing video games and handling items on the shelves. I had been in the store earlier that night dressed in a suit; I was treated with respect by the clerk.
But now I was in a jacket and jeans, and, as soon as I walked in the door, the clerk stopped reading and began to watch me. She never took her eyes off me until I got into my car and drove away.
My girlfriend's daughter recently heard another child say that blacks were not to be trusted because "they steal and stuff."
What are we doing? Is this the America, my home, which holds sacred the famed words that say, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights . . . life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
I am not invisible; I am a man of flesh and bone who is proud that he is black. And I expect to be treated with the common courtesy and respect due "all men."