When I first moved to Georgia over 20years ago, I was driving in Atlanta on Interstate 285. Dangerously, I cut in front of a truck, forgetting the right-hand mirror made cars look farther away than they really are. Promptly, there was a light in my rearview -- a blue, blue, blue light.
When the DeKalb County deputy walked up behind my car, I saw something I had never seen before. The black deputy had his hand on his gun. He took my driver’s license back to his cruiser, and then returned, hand on gun, with my ticket. I deserved it.
When I first saw that deputy walk toward me, gun ready, my hands jumped to the steering wheel. I wasn’t exactly sure of the relationship between blacks and whites in the South. I remembered hearing a story about black fathers teaching their sons to grab the steering wheel. I liked that lesson.
Something else occurred to me later. I didn’t know if the officer was new to the job, or if he was a deputy who should never have been hired, or even if his wife left him the night before. I decided right then that putting my hands on the steering wheel was a very good idea and I’ve been doing it ever since. You can be certain, if I had a son living with me then, I would have told him the steering wheel was his friend. I would have told his human friends too.
In Macon, I was pulled over by the city police, a black woman this time. While she ran my license, she asked me, hand on gun again, to sit in the back of her car. I did so; she closed the door and I was locked in. I was a little irritated. “Am I under arrest?” I challenged her. Clearly put off, she muttered something about needing to protect herself while she unlocked my door.
I don’t know if locking me up was following guidelines or not, but I realized having me sit in the back, safely locked up, was a small price to pay for her to feel and be safe. Her’s is a very dangerous job.
I’ve learned much more about black/white relations here. They are very similar to other parts of the country, but there is a difference. Some differences are apparent; others are hard to put your finger on.
In Wesleyan Woods, someone created a Facebook page for the neighborhood. It really was a wonderful idea. Lost pets are often returned, while warnings about owls, coyotes etc., a threat to the very small pets and cats, are posted. We are warned when someone has their car ransacked.
Once, a gang of young black men were breaking into several homes during mornings. Apparently they were observing when owners left for work. I saw a black man parked in front of my house. When I walked out the front door he sped off in exactly the same color and make of car described in Facebook.
Black visitors to the neighborhood were monitored and noted online. Many were identified and concerns put aside. Was this profiling, or common sense? There are good arguments either way. The thieves were arrested on a tip by a resident.
At a neighborhood meeting in a cul-de-sac, sheriff deputies told us to report any suspicious people seen. There were some young, white, very determined, Bible book salesmen going door to door. Neighbors complained how aggressive they were and wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. On Facebook, many residents had the same complaint. Deputies were called; it seems they did not have proper permits or identification. They haven’t been seen since.
As a member of the mostly white CAUTION Macon, neighborhood road-building monitors, I remember visiting residents in the minority “south downtown connector” neighborhood. A woman said to me, “I told them they are taking so much of my front yard, I will hit cars when I open my front door. The man told me ‘that’s all right, we will move your door to the side of your house.’” I doubt he gave that answer in a white neighborhood.
We helped those residents secure some major modifications to the road design using federal “environmental justice” requirements that protect minorities from such abuse. I wonder how many blacks and whites have heard such stories, or more importantly, how many have not.
The way to hear stories like these is to talk -- to actually meet with each other and talk. When President Obama talked about car door locks clicking as he walked near, I took note; that never happened to me. No woman ever clutched her purse when I entered an elevator, nor has store security ever followed me as I shopped.
We need to talk, to tell each other what we wish the other knew, or what we wish the other considered. Let’s meet. No politicians allowed. Let them simply provide the resources, discussion sites, etc. Let’s be one of the first communities to begin the conversation.
Our city, Macon, had Jim Crow laws until 1967. Our beautiful railway Terminal Station has “Colored Waiting Area” chiseled in the granite over one of the large portals. Maybe this is part of the reason black/white relations are a bit different in the South.
How wonderful it would be, given this history, if we set an example for the rest of the country. Let’s meet; let the dialogue begin. Persian poet Jalal-Uddin Rumi said, “Out beyond ideas of wrong-doing and right-doing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
Tom Scholl is a resident of Macon. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.