When talking about race, some activists say we should stay away from personal accounts. Because this makes racism seem individual, random and fickle when in fact it is orchestrated by groups who implement codes of law. But I never felt we could afford to lose our focus on one without compromising the other especially because individual acts of discrimination are a direct result of our policies that sanction the unfair treatment of people of color. So I was quite moved when I read this piece recently by Kenneth Lavon Johnson, a retired judge, that well tied the individual experience of racism to the system it helps prop up. In " Black man’s burden still hard to bear," published in the Baltimore Sun, Johnson talks about the time he was racially profiled by a white woman. Here, he shows how this experience is intrinsic to being a Black man and also, for that woman, key to maintaining white structural power over Blacks. Check this out:
Last month, about one hour after my arrival in Atlanta to visit a family member, I was confronted, once again, with the burden that all black men in this country face on a daily basis. I was standing in front of my relative’s home in an upscale neighborhood, surveying the beauty that surrounded me, when a white woman in her early 30s approached me, with her dog, from across the street. She asked me, in a rather hostile voice, "Are you waiting for someone?" I responded by saying, "Good afternoon. No, I am not waiting on anyone; I am visiting with a family member." I gave my name and my family member’s name. The sneer on her face and the yank on her dog’s leash as she turned and walked into her house left me with no doubt that she did not believe me – that I was just another trifling, riffraff black man looking for an opportunity to rape and rob her, or worse. My expectation was that a police car would soon arrive to question me, so I removed two picture IDs from my wallet and placed them in my shirt pocket. It’s not a good idea to reach for your wallet when the police approach you as a suspect. (I suppose that I should just accentuate the positive and be thankful that the police did not come and the woman did not let her dog bite me.) My reaction to her racial profiling of me was just to stand there in silence – not stunned. I have been profiled because of my blackness throughout my life. It’s a burden, and it hurts. No black man in America can avoid or overcome it, no matter his state in life. The racial stereotyping of black men as rapists, robbers and murderers has existed in this country throughout the centuries of slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and white supremacy, and it still does. No, today’s white America does not express those sentiments as starkly and openly as it once did. Much racism has become subtler. How many recall that Ronald Reagan opened his campaign for president in 1980 in Neshoba County, Miss.? There, in my home state, he said to a cheering crowd, "I believe in states’ rights" – code words for white supremacy and the racial segregation that undergirded it. For those who may have forgotten, Neshoba County is the place where, in June 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered by the state-sanctioned Ku Klux Klan, with the assistance of a county deputy sheriff, for their efforts in teaching black residents how to register and vote. On the day of their murder, I was a young captain in the Army Judge Advocate General’s Corps, stationed in the Demilitarized Zone in Korea with the 1st Calvary Division. Our duty was to protect South Korea’s democracy and our own by preventing the spread of communism, a system wherein the people have no right to vote. And, yes, I was also protecting the freedom of that young white woman in Atlanta to racially profile me. White America initiated racial profiling to prop up slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and white supremacy. It also initiated the use of the N-word for the same reasons. There is nothing that black America can do to stop racial profiling or the use of the N-word; that is white America’s duty – and its burden. It hurts America and will continue to keep America from becoming the country that it has always claimed to be but never has been: one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. Kenneth Lavon Johnson is a retired Baltimore Circuit Court judge.