Enforcing the Pattern

“Hey!” The shout came first, then the young man sprinting across the street, clutching what looked like a moneybag in his hand. Was I witnessing a robbery in progress? He leaped like a hare, weaving through the traffic stopped at the intersection, and I mused that only a person fleeing a crime could run that fast.

Then I saw the bus parked around the corner. It pulled away from the curb just seconds before the young man reached it, and I empathized with the disappointment he must be feeling. My impulse was to offer him a ride. I glanced at the passenger seat to see what I would have to move, and noticed my billfold lying there. I’d pulled it out to pay the highway toll and hadn’t returned it to my purse.

I calibrated the time needed to stuff the billfold back in my purse and stash the whole thing behind the seat, but by then traffic was moving and I hadn’t quite made up my mind, and besides, this was Tulsa, and it probably wasn’t a good idea to pick up a strange man anyway. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that I should have done so, that the human thing to do was to offer help to a person in need.

That feeling was reinforced a few minutes later when I saw the same bus stopped at another street corner. My last excuse, that the young man probably wanted to go 10 miles away and I didn’t have time to take him, evaporated. I could have dropped him off just a half mile from where we began.

Did I mention that he was black? I’m not sure that made a difference in my decision not to give him a ride. We live in a world where a woman needs to think twice about letting a strange man get in her car, regardless of social class or color. Yet I have to ask if my initial perception, of a robbery in progress, might have been different if the young man were white. Perhaps then I would have seen what, in fact, was going on, a person trying to flag down a bus. Did I see a robbery because the person was black? Was I especially concerned with getting my billfold out of sight because of his skin color?

We have to think about these things now, if we haven’t before. This is how young black men get killed — because “nice” people like me assume criminal intent. The moneybag I thought I saw in his hand turned out to be a Seagrams 7 bag, or something of that shape, I noticed as I drove past. That’s an unusual thing for a man to be carrying and I might be excused for thinking it was something else. How easy would it be for a policeman to make the same mistake and fire at a young man running for the bus?

I get a glimpse of the fear black Americans live with and the immense burden of presumed guilt they have to carry. Mystic and activist Howard Thurman, writing in the 1940s, spoke of white Americans’ implicit role in maintaining racial prejudice. “Every member of the controllers’ group is in a sense a special deputy, authorized by the mores to enforce the pattern.” (Jesus and the Disinherited, p. 31)

How do you enforce the pattern of fear, superiority and mistrust? What one action might you take to start breaking down those walls?