My sophomore year Harvard announced a cost-cutting measure that made the news. Going forward the school would continue to provide toilet paper to freshmen dorms, but upper classmen would have to provide for themselves. Almost immediately, toilet paper began disappearing from buildings all over campus.
One Monday night my roommate and I discovered that we were low on supplies, so after dinner we walked up the hill to Harvard Yard to visit the freshmen dorms. In a building with communal bathrooms (where we could easily lay hands on a few rolls), we were invited to hang out with a group of freshmen watching Monday Night Football. We stayed until halftime.
Afterward, rolls in knapsack, we headed back to our room. At the door to the freshman building we passed an older man. He stared at us but said nothing. Halfway across the Yard, I saw some lights from a car approaching behind us. We stepped aside to let the car pass. Suddenly the car swung over to cut across our path and campus policemen jumped out, hands on their holsters. From every direction campus cops approached, some with weapons drawn. I put my hands in the air and froze. The man we had passed near the dorm stepped forward and asked me to empty the contents of the backpack on the hood of the car. I slowly unzipped the bag and emptied the rolls of toilet paper. The cops burst into laughter, ridiculing the one who had reported us. He defended himself, claiming that I had been "skulking around the corner" with the bag over my shoulder in a suspicious manner. We produced our student ID cards. They let us go. I've told this story a million times. We always laugh, but we could have been shot on campus over a couple of rolls of toilet paper.
Many years later, after business school at Stanford, I returned to New York to work for McKinsey & Company as a management consultant. One Saturday, after the gym, I dropped by the office to put together documents for a Monday morning meeting. In the copy room, Xerox machine humming, Walkman playing music in my ears, I looked up to see a guy whose office was two doors from mine walk past the copy room. I waved and went back to work. A short while later I looked up to see the security guard from downstairs standing in the room, my co-worker right behind him pointing in my direction. The guard, who knew me by name, had a confused look on his face.
I paused the machine and pulled off the headphones. I nodded at the guard and then looked past him at my co-worker. "Hey ----, what's going on?" At the mention of his name, my co-worker froze and took a good look at my face. I could almost feel him pulling off my sweats and clothing me in a suit and tie in his head. Without a word he spun on his heel and walked out of the room. The guard was smirking. "Let me guess," I said, "He called to report that a crook broke in and was stealing Xerox copies?" The guard broke into a laugh. I was in a rush to get home, so I didn't drop by my neighbor's office to discuss what had happened. After that I never saw him again. I don't know whether it was our travel schedules or if he simply avoided me.
I am African-American. Each time a cab zooms past to pick up a white passenger instead of me, each time I walk into a company dressed for a meeting and reception directs me to the messenger entrance I am reminded. We have a problem. It's a problem that is not just about race, but also about social and economic class. It is about automatic assumptions made on first sight, with little or no rational thought.
This problem brought the Harvard cop to a knee-jerk assumption that two black teens were not students on his campus. It caused my co-worker to react to the sight of a black man in sweats making Xerox copies on a Saturday. It caused George Zimmerman to follow and kill a black kid walking through his own neighborhood empty-handed on the way home. It recently caused a New York City cop to put a lethal choke hold on a black man who seems on video to be trying to talk his way out of an arrest for illegally selling loose cigarettes. And in Missouri the result was an 18-year-old kid shot six times with, witnesses said, his hands in the air in surrender.
These aren't just isolated examples of unfortunate events on the mean streets. Trayvon was killed in a gated community. My two examples are from Harvard and McKinsey, bastions of deep, enlightened thinking. In each of these cases, race led to fear that pushed logic out the window. For example, why didn't the Harvard cop simply stop us in the freshman dorm and demand to see our ID? For two black teens he felt he needed backup so we were confronted by half the Harvard police department. Why would Trayvon, if he were a professional criminal, continue trying to steal when he had clearly noticed a strange man following in a non-official car? Why is lethal force required to take down a New York man who clearly was not threatening or resisting arrest (look at the video; if he had resisted, those cops would have been bounced around like toy soldiers)? Why is an unarmed young man, hands in the air, shot multiple times by an experienced law officer?
Compound these lapses in logic with the far too frequent tendency to over-react due to fear, and we have recipes that lead to embarrassment, as at Harvard and McKinsey, or even tragedy, as happened with Trayvon Martin, with Eric Garner in Staten Island, and with Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo. As long as conditions, historical and present, keep an overwhelming percentage of minorities in conditions of desperate poverty, we will continue to see the kinds of crime statistics that lead too many to feel justified in assuming that every minority encountered is out of place, suspect and subject to negative profiling. When their fear leads them to over-react, we all pay an awful price.
Tony Brown is President of The Real Advice Plus, a New York-based company that provides recruiting, diversity, career counseling, and management consulting services. His email is email@example.com.
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