Recently, a group of Orange County residents showed up at a meeting of the county board of supervisors furious because of an order that requires them all to wear masks. While the exact reason for their resistance in the middle of a pandemic is unclear, perhaps they feel that masks conceal who they really are and even violates their freedoms. I could not help but recognize the irony. I, and many others like me in America, are forced to wear a mask that says Black man. A mask adorned with suspicion, stereotypes, injustice, and disrespect.
A summer day during graduate school, practically starving after a long day of research at UCLA, I was heading back to Orange County. I stopped at a little coffee shop that only took cash. I had none, so seeing my bank in the distance and trying to avoid fees, I headed into the Beverly Hills area. Parked in front of the bank was a police car with an officer sitting inside. I tried to get his attention to ask if there was an ATM at this bank. Unsuccessful, I decided to look on my own. I noticed a second police car arrived. By the time I approached the front door of the bank, a third car had arrived. Late at night on this quiet street, I knew I was in danger. I headed back to my car just as a fourth vehicle arrived. As I carefully pulled away, I was flanked by a police car on either side with an additional one behind me. To a neutral observer, I looked like a researcher dressed in jeans and a shirt with a car full of books, but they could not see past the mask. All they could see was a threat. They escorted me to the border of Beverly Hills before leaving.
Why did I leave the area? From an early age, I learned that regardless of my education or status, if I am in an affluent area at night, I am considered a threat and my life may be in danger. The fact that I am trained to know that speaks volumes.
I remember shortly after I got a full-time tenure-track position, someone from the division greeted me in the hall and welcomed me to the college.
“It must have been really easy for you to get this job,” they said.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because you are Black,” they responded.
The fact that I have a Ph.D. in chemistry does not matter, nor the fact that I was a National Science Foundation Fellow who also developed a curriculum to help underrepresented minorities prepare for the MCAT, nor did my interview itself matter. Apparently, all I had to do was put Black on the application and that was it. Just that easy. Even in academia all they could see was the mask. My accomplishments didn’t matter. Thank you for the welcome.
That was many years ago. Do those things still happen today? As an ASCCC Executive Committee member, I was presenting at an institute. On my way to lunch someone stopped me and told me how much they enjoyed my session. After a little while, it was clear that I did not make the presentation to which he was referring; it was someone else: the only other Black male presenter. Although we were dressed differently and have somewhat different builds, it may be reasonable that someone may not have noticed even after spending 75 minutes with the presenter. However, the other Black male had a shaved head, and I have a full head of hair. I wear glasses and that presenter does not. After sitting through an entire presentation, all the participant saw was a Black man? Couldn’t he see beyond society's mask? I do not think he was a bad person. In fact, the session he attended was on equity.
One not too uncommon experience that many Black men share is being pulled over by the police for a DWB (driving while black). In one case, I was driving through an area in eastern Los Angeles county with three white friends, when suddenly I was pulled over by the police. The officer explained that the reason he pulled me over was because I was going 40 in a 45 mile per hour zone.
He kept asking if I had guns and knives and where they were located. I assured him I had none. As I handed him my license and registration, he demanded that I get out of the car, his hand firmly on his weapon (as my friends noticed with impunity). As he “dropped” my license on the ground and asked me to pick it up, it was clear how little respect he had for me. He pulled the other passengers out of the car and searched the car for drugs that he “knew” I had, and he called for backup. Unable to find anything, he threatened to impound the car and take it apart to find the drugs. He ultimately got another call and informed me that I had “gotten away with it this time!” My friends were incensed and demanded action. How could this happen? I just calmly explained that they had just experienced a DWB and that this was all too common. Even though I had described such episodes in the past, it was not until they saw it first-hand that they could really see the injustice.
Many in society, although somewhat sympathetic to the inequities of some systems such as the legal system, saw little need for systemic change as their views were filtered by society's stereotypes and its justification for more disparate and aggressive treatment of Black men. But seeing these injustices with their own eyes, including the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police, seems to have driven home the realities of injustice far more than years of conversation ever could. Now people of many races and backgrounds that have joined the Black Lives Matter movement in solidarity are demanding systemic change. I am hopeful.
A number of years ago I spent some time in an area that had little diversity.
I remember a friend saying to me, “Sam, how come you are not like other Black people?”
“How many other Black people do you know well?” I asked.
“Actually none,” he replied.
“Then how do you know I am not like other Black people?”
Perhaps, that is the problem at its core. Society must get to know Black people. They must learn of our history including our accomplishments, abuses and suffering; of our overwhelming contribution to the wealth and prominence of this country; of the inventions that have made our lives simpler; of our contributions to art, literature, science and technology through the centuries. As educators, we can begin the process of introducing America to Black people through our curriculum. They must learn to see beyond the mask that society imposes that simply says Black man and all the negative stereotypes that it implies.
Get to know me. I am many things. I am the son of a strong Black woman, a Ph.D. scholar and an educator, and an optimist among many other things. And yes, I am a proud Black Man.