One upon a time, I ran away from home. Not like a child-throwing-a-tantrum and packing-his-favorite-toys in a pillowcase running away from home, actually, it was a 40 year-old man, packing a few of his belongings and leaving his home of Southern California for the first time for idyllic Santa Cruz, CA.
Now in my 40 years up to then, I had of course had my run-ins with the police. The usual speeding tickets, shouting matches at anti-war demonstrations, stops during the Rodney King Riots based upon some rather inappropriate non-verbal communication on my part. I had even been stopped and questioned in the alley behind my house, and had a visit inside my apartment from the police (my front door was left open at night for the two stray cats that visited on inclement nights), and oh, yes, I almost forgot, the questioning by police for being at the park in the wee hours at sunrise with a white-woman. After all, I spent most of my life in Los Angeles! But I had never had the sit-down-on-the-curb-and-open-your-backpack experience!
Until one beautiful afternoon in paradise. I was strolling down the outdoor shopping area of Santa Cruz looking for a gift for me soon-to-be wife. Granted, my wonderful wife is a what I would consider to be a bit of a hippy (microaggression noted). So I was visiting the shops that featured new-age items. I was dressed even more poorly than usual, a t-shirt with cut-off sleeves along with my basketball shorts. It was in one of these shops while I was standing in line to pay for some little item – hmmm, was it a small Ganesh figurine? – that a police officer asked me to step outside. I was instructed to sit on the curb and open my backpack. Then I was directed to face in the direction of a police car whereupon I was identified by an unseen store clerk (concealed by glare in the police car’s windshield) as the person than had stolen a small Buddha statue.
Apparently there had been a rash of thievery of small Buddha statues. Although I didn’t do any such thing and hod no such item on my person, I was issued a ticket and given a court date.
When I appeared in court, the judge asked me why I was smiling. I told him I was amused by how silly it was to be there. When I pled not guilty, he asked me if I was sure I just didn’t want to pay the ticket? It was, after all, just a small fine. I assured him that no, I had no intention of admitting to something I had not done. I received another court date.
Well, the accuser never showed up and the charges were dropped. I lost a few hours of pay. But it was a powerful reminder for those of us that fit the description… even marginally, that institutions designed to conserve the current power structure, in harmony with preconceived perceptions by the dominant society about the “other” can result in catastrophic outcomes for families.
Years later, much to my dismay, I myself was guilty of mis-perceiving a person – assuming something about their race based upon their dress (I could not see his face). I have made other horrendous errors, fortunately, for the most part, they never left my front door or found any audience that might have been quick to join in my assumptions.
Prejudice is often harmful to the individual who holds the prejudice. But it is discrimination, the execution of prejudice, that can be toxic and even deadly. In the cultural milieu that is America, prejudice and discrimination is naturally more prevalent than in more culturally monolithic countries. Perhaps that is cause for the US imprisoning more people than any other country (Quigley, Bill, 2012).
In a society such as the US, with already existing institutional biases, equity is not an issue. Few people from non-dominant groups expect equal treatment under the law. Instances such as mine, don’t establish a diminishing of equity. They simply demonstrate the inequity that exists in the everyday experiences of perhaps 100s of millions of Americans.
As an individual, I am beyond the rash anger that some 20 years ago would have easily come to me. But maybe that is not a good thing. Maybe it means that I have accepted the institutional biases that exist in America and doubt the plausibility of change. I look to the next generation – the generation for which mixed-race couples exist in the media… for which racially ambiguous beauty is celebrated… for which marches of 250,000 immigration rights demonstrators are fresh, and “occupy” means a declaration of rights… I look to the next generation to get beyond Columbine and Aurora and find what our generation could not – a freedom from our fears.
Post Script: Years later, I read in the paper (in Los Angeles no less!) that they had apprehended the Buddha statue thief. It wasn’t me.
Quigley, Bill. 2012. Fourteen examples of systemic racism in the US criminal justice system. Retrieved July 30, 2012 from www.commondreams.org