THREE of us had parked our car just north of Preston Street on Greenmount Avenue and were crossing the street to eat lunch at the venerable soul food restaurant, the Yellow Bowl. Half the block where we parked is boarded; two houses are burned out and open to the weather, sky visible through the roof. The illegal drug trade bustles in the area.
As we waited for the light to change to cross Preston, a gaunt man on the opposite corner suddenly yelled, "Tighten up! Tighten up!" The cry was echoed by a couple of other voices, sending some men scurrying away.
It was the lookout's warning that the police were nearby, and I thought for a moment that we -- two white men and one African American man -- had been mistaken for the police, not an uncommon assumption on a drug corner.
In fact, the vigilant scout had spotted a patrol car approaching. A moment later, we were surprised to see the cruiser pull to the curb in front of us. The passenger-side window opened, and a blond policewoman fixed us with an accusing gaze.
"What are you doing here?" she asked, her very tone of voice an indictment. It was not hard to read her mind: Whatever lame excuse they may offer, white folks on this corner are here to buy drugs.
"Going to the Yellow Bowl," we answered.
"You walk around here often?" she pressed, her tone sarcastic. "Where do you work?" she demanded. I felt a flash of annoyance and a fleeting urge to answer that it was none of her business where we worked. But the question was not a bad one to trip up a neophyte drug buyer. Answer truthfully, and you could get in trouble with your employer. Lie, and you risk getting caught. Hesitate, and you might as well be pleading guilty.
"The Sun," we said.
Soul food run
That seemed to cool her ardor. You could see her shift gears mentally. Maybe they aren't junkies trying to cop, she was thinking. Maybe they are just stupid, risking a bullet for fried chicken and cornbread.
"Well, I don't want to have to write up an assault and robbery this afternoon," she said. "If you get my drift." We got her drift.
She pulled away. We crossed the street and went into the Yellow Bowl and ordered lunch. The waitress heard the story and understood instantly what had happened. It's the color of your skin, she said.
When black people are pulled over by police for imagined transgressions, the bitter joke is that they have committed an unofficial crime: DWB, driving while black.
We had been questioned for another crime. Call it WWW -- walking while white.
Police wary of lawsuits deny that they ever "profile," placing people under suspicion because of some combination of race, age and gender. Naturally, on an informal basis, they profile all the time. We had been profiled. White guys, stepping out of their authorized neighborhoods, are presumed to be on the prowl for cocaine or heroin. Failing that, they are presumed to be morons, likely to get themselves robbed or shot.
We were more amused than offended, which may be a reflection of what scholars of racism call white privilege, the automatic advantage conveyed to the racial majority.
We hadn't been cursed at or frisked, ordered to lie on the sidewalk or spread-eagled against a car. I recognized that the police officer basically meant well, that at first she was trying to scare some drug buyers away from a neighborhood rotted out by the trade, and then advising potential crime victims to be on their guard.
But for an instant, I had been presumed a criminal because of my skin color. I felt momentary resentment at being stopped on the street to face a rude police demand for information. I felt myself weigh the urge to assert my right to privacy and freedom against the sheer folly of talking back to a cop. It was a revealing encounter.
The police officer, reading this, might well resent my resentment. She was, after all, just doing her job, just playing the odds, just reading the world in the unmistakable, visible language of color.
In segregated America in 1999, race remains a dance of faulty assumptions, a tangle of potential misunderstanding.
Scott Shane is a reporter for The Sun.
Pub Date: 1/28/99