Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban's controversial comments about walking across the street if he saw a young black man wearing a hoodie coming toward him late at night got me to thinking about an experience I had 30 years ago.
One night while walking from my Charles Village home to my car, I noticed two young black men walking toward me. It was very dark since the street light had blown out. Should I cross the street? I asked myself, concluding that such a move would be racist since they had just as much right to the sidewalk as I did. I continued walking.
As we came abreast of each other, right at the intersection of an alley, one of them put a gun to my head.
"Give my your f***ing money," he said.
"Ok, ok, take it," I replied and gave him my wallet. They grabbed it and ran down the alley. It took about 15 seconds. Stunned, I just stood there and watched. They threw away my wallet after taking the cash, but I remained standing for several minutes. Finally, I walked down the alley and picked up my wallet. My credit card and driver's license were intact. Since it was dark, I never saw their faces.
I started trembling, and my thoughts raced: I could have been shot, or killed! I'm lucky that I got my wallet back. What do I do now? I drove to my friend's house, my original destination, and called the police. Since a weapon was involved, the police arrived in minutes, but I couldn't provide a description of the perpetrators. I declined their request to go down to police headquarters to look a mug shots since it wouldn't do any good.
Was I stupid for not crossing the street to prove I wasn't a racist or just naive? I always teach my students that racial stereotypes (exaggerated and distorted beliefs about a particular racial group) always have a grain of truth. Unfortunately, I sampled the grain and it tasted awful.
For months afterward, I was too terrified to walk near that alley. I would look around, twice, before getting out of my car. When I would see a young black man walking toward me, I would start to tremble again. My body ached to walk in the other direction, but I would keep walking. I kept telling myself, over and over again: You were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most young black men don't rob people. Statistically, the likelihood of you getting robbed again is small. Don't give into the stereotypes. If a young white guy had put a gun to your head, you wouldn't be afraid of all young whites.
Repeating this mantra kept me going until the terror turned into fear and the fear turned into concern and the concern turned into caution. I'm not sure what I would have done if I weren't certain that most young black men, with or without hoodies, were law-abiding citizens who were just trying to live their lives.
Mr. Cuban is right that we are all affected by cultural stereotypes (he also said he would cross the street to avoid a white, bald, tattooed man), but he is wrong about simply accepting this as a fact of life. We don't have to let our behavior be governed by bigotry.
Fred L. Pincus is an emeritus professor of sociology at UMBC. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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