The night the riots were exploding around Baltimore because of the death of a black man in police custody my daughter got pulled over by an Ohio State trooper. She and some friends were driving back to Oberlin College from a trip into Cleveland. My daughter wasn’t stopped because of the color of her skin or because the trooper wanted to find some reason to search her vehicle. He simply thought there might be something wrong with her car and was trying to keep her safe. It turns out he was right about her car problems, and he waited with my daughter and her friends until the tow truck came. Then the policeman gave them all a lift back to the college in his squad car.
My daughter, with her white skin and red hair, will never feel the fear of racial profiling. Her only interactions with law enforcement have been positive. And I have to admit, I’ve used the white-teary-eyed-woman card to talk a trooper or two out of ticketing me for moving violations in the past.
I absolutely have no idea how it feels to be discriminated against because of what I look like.
So how can I talk about racial profiling in any kind of authentic way? How can I judge what pushes someone to violence on the streets when I have never been treated unfairly by the law?
I am a white woman teaching English to students of color at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Sometimes I’m the only white person in the room. What can I teach them about social justice when I haven’t lived their lives on the streets of NYC? What do I really understand about any of this? Yet, because I’m their professor, they look to me for answers. How can I give those?
But Charles can.
Charles Davidson is a 40-something black man who was born in Baltimore. And now he’s a colleague of mine at John Jay. When we sat down for coffee yesterday, I asked him to help me grasp a little of what this feels like to him, because even if I will never get hit with the punch of what it’s like to be discriminated against, I can try to listen. I can try to sympathize. I can try to learn.
“Charles,” I said, “tell me.”
“I’ve been angry these last few days.” he said. “Really, really angry. You can’t possibly understand that feeling of fear—that when a policeman looks at you, he’s looking for trouble.”
“But Charles,” I said, “I mean, you dress really well, and”
“Do you think that matters?” Charles interrupted, shutting down my naive response. “Do you think as I walk down the streets of Baltimore or of NYC a policeman is going to say to himself, ‘Well, that black man obviously has a Ph.D., and he is an upstanding citizen, so I will give him respect.’ Do you really think that’s going to happen?”
I opened my mouth to answer. Then I closed it again. When Charles gets into lawyer mode, I have no defense (and none is needed). So I just shut up and listen because that’s how I’ll best learn.
“So I’ve been really angry,” Charles said again. “I’ve been on Facebook and other forums, and I’ve been writing and debating and debunking. And it was all words and arguments, and my anger just kept rising.
“Years ago my father’s office was in Baltimore just a few blocks from where the worst of the recent rioting took place. I was pretty young when my family moved to the Maryland suburbs—where so many wealthy black families have escaped the city. Did you know the Maryland suburbs have the highest concentration of black affluence in the nation?”
It was such a rhetorical question that he didn’t even wait for me to shake my head no.
“But in all my anger,” Charles said, “it finally occurred to me that I was just talking. I wasn’t doing anything. Here I was, a black man with Baltimore roots, just spitting and spouting. And then I realized that precisely because I am a black man from Baltimore, I have a bigger responsibility to do something.
“These are my people. And I’ve left them behind. We’re supposed to be taking care of each other, but those of us who could moved to the suburbs and left those of us who couldn’t behind. What was I going to DO about that?”
Charles’ eyes, a light brown ringed with dark, were intense. We’re good friends, and I know this look. It means I need to get ready—because Charles, in working through his own questions and coming to his own answers, always blasts my thinking, challenging me to higher levels.
“Did you know,” Charles said, “that there are over 100,000 people in Baltimore right now without water?”
Charles never throws down a non sequitur, so I waited for his connection between riots and water bills.
“Imagine that your power is out, that you don’t have running water in your house, the police are breathing down your neck—just waiting for you to look like you’re going to do something wrong—and the grocery store where you’ve been working part-time for 10 years just laid you off.
“You’d feel desperate, wouldn’t you? You’d feel angry, wouldn’t you? You then might do something ill-advised out of that feeling of hopelessness.”
At least in this I can relate, if only a little. When I was a child, my family was on food stamps for a while, and when I was a young adult, I sometimes didn’t know how I was going to pay my bills, or even how I was going to pay for my next meal. But those were just instances of difficult times in my life. I can’t imagine living in that never-ending crisis.
“So then,” Charles went on, “I thought, what if I could alleviate just a little of that desperateness, if only for one family?”
“The water bill,” I said softly.
“Yes, the water bill,” he said. “I went online and found out that anyone can pay a past-due bill for someone who lives in Baltimore.”
“And so you did,” I said, as I watched Charles’ face move in memory from his past agitation to his current peace. “You paid someone’s bill to get their water turned back on.”
“Yes, and it completely changed me,” he said. “It took my focus off myself and my own anger and placed it where it needed to be—on someone else. And when I started looking outside, wanting to connect with someone in some small way, I knew that all this talk about racial profiling and the right or wrong of riots is going nowhere, unless we DO something positive—unless we show that love can be a force for good.”
“Charles,” I said, “You are forcing me to be good as well.”
As we parted, we kissed on the cheek, and I thanked him again for his constant gift of pushing me to grapple with complex issues while also distilling them into simple good.
So the next time I go into my classroom, I’ll tell my students about the gentleness of a policeman who helped my daughter, while also realizing it could have gone down differently for her if she’d had darker skin. And I’ll tell these students that I’ll never fully be able to understand—to feel—what it is like for them to be discriminated against.
But I’ll also tell them that my friend Charles does. And since I can’t be a role model to my students in these complicated racial issues, I hope that they will let Charles’ actions be an example of how they should behave.
Because in one act of paying a water bill, Charles is an example to us all—simplifying it all into this: we have a responsibility to show kindness and love toward others.
So right now, I’m going to this website to help pay someone’s water bill in the city of Baltimore.
Even after my tutorial with Charles, I know I’m still really unqualified to SAY anything.
But I’m absolutely able to DO something—a little something—that I hope will make a difference.
Charles Davidson is the Director for the Center for Advancement of Teaching at John Jay College. Prior to coming to John Jay, Dr. Davidson was an Assistant Professor of International Law at the American University in Cairo. Concurrent with his teaching, Dr. Davidson has worked on a wide variety of law reform projects around the world, and his areas of specialization are in legal education reform, human rights, and international development. A licensed attorney, Dr. Davidson was a member of the US Department of Justice’s Honors Program and worked with the Federal Bureau of Prisons and the US Attorney’s Office before returning to university to pursue an MALD and PhD in Law and Diplomacy and International Relations.