As I write this article in celebration of Black History Month, it is difficult to share my thoughts about something that is at once personal, controversial, and political. In my fourth semester at HBS, I know that any one of these three topics makes for questionable conversation. I’m inspired, though, to challenge everyone to examine his or her perspectives and assumptions about black people both inside and outside of the HBS community.
At 5:30 AM one morning last winter, I was greeted by three Cambridge police cars. I was on my way to Shad for my daily workout when an officer turned on his lights behind me. My driving speed could not have exceeded five miles per hour, so I figure that one of my car lights may have been malfunctioning. The signaling lights that the officer put on weren’t the friendly, red “pull over, buckaroo” lights. No, no. They were blue and bright and as soon as I slowed there was a spotlight behind me. And then another in my face and a third on left cheek.
This is what my mom and dad had warned me about. My instinct was to reach for my Harvard ID, pull off my hat and gloves, and give a friendly smile. A 1991 lecture on getting pulled over told me that I should remain completely still –even place my hands in the air if I wanted to prove that I meant no harm. I was shaking, but moved my hands from my steering wheel to the top of my Jetta’s roof. Right then, a police officer started screaming from behind me, “HANDS UP! HANDS UP! PUT YOUR HANDS UP!!!” Strange thoughts raced through my head. “What will my mom think if I get killed by a trigger happy cop in front of my apartment while I’m attending Harvard Business School?” “Are these guys going to hurt me?” One officer approaches, covering the spotlight on my cheek. He pounds on my window and I slowly drop my left hand to roll it down. I’m sweating. I’m afraid.
The officer commands, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?”
That’s when I do it. I’m condescending when I drop the H-Bomb, responding, “I’m a student at Harvard Business School and I’m going to the gym. Is there a problem, officer?”
“GIVE ME YOUR I.D.”
After verifying that I don’t have a criminal record, the officer barks to his colleagues, “NOT THE ONE, NOT THE ONE.” I ask what has just happened and he grunts that a house in Cambridge was just robbed by a black person. He turns around and gets into his car (I didn’t forget the part about his apology for being rude…I received no such courtesy). As I turn the corner onto Memorial Drive, I see that a State Trooper was also ready to greet me should I have been the robber.
Why, though, wasn’t I the robber? Was it simply HBS that saved me from having to prove myself, my actions, who I was and why I was driving around in a new car in Cambridge?
I considered writing an article to the HARBUS about the incident last year. Depending on my mood, there is everything and nothing to write about. It is completely legal for officers to question someone and in fact, most people are pleased to have a police force that is actively trying to catch criminals. At this level, the incident is about nothing.
Why, then, is this about any way? I want to know why showing a Harvard identification card exonerated me from all possible guilt in the eyes of the police officer that pulled me over.
Speaking of Harvard and some of the recent hubbub about legacy admittance and underrepresented ethnic groups at Ivies, you may have noticed a dapper young black man gracing the cover of the January 27 issue of Newsweek. This tie-wearing would-be college student is covered with a suggestive caption, “Do We Still Need Affirmative Action?” This question draws me back to 1992 in Los Gatos, California. The day after acceptances for The University of California at Berkeley were received I was glowing! A classmate quickly shot me down, casually noting, “You just got in because you’re black and part Hispanic.” I most likely received an admission invitation from Berkeley because I was fifteen when I was a high school senior and was in very strong academic standing at a school known for its rigorous curriculum and competitive student body. Most college students aren’t sixteen when they arrive to college. Nor are they tie-wearing men like the one pictured on the Newsweek cover. Affirmative action policies often benefit a broad group of underrepresented groups and help address the 400 years of de facto affirmative action that has been afforded to many white Americans. As for me, comments such as the one I received from my high school classmate compelled me to attend Howard University, a Historically Black University.
While growing up in this mostly white area, many of my friends (and their families) had never known a black person in a close and interpersonal manner before meeting me. Sooner or later, most of my young friends, proud of their ‘openness,’ would offer me something that they viewed as a compliment: “Debbie, you’re so nice. You’re not like the OTHER black people.” What OTHER black people? Oh. You know.
The ones on television and in movies. The ones lurking in their fears of being robbed. Was I different just because I was in school with them?
Consider for a moment the politicization and ‘criminalization’ of black people in America. You may remember hearing about a miserable, murderous institution called slavery that we studied in BGIE. You know.
Black people either taken by force or sold from Western Africa over a few hundred-year period and dropped off in various locations across the Americas (hence the Black Diaspora) to work in grueling and oppressive conditions, never mind often being forced to procreate to generate income for those sick individuals who thought to profit from selling and working to death more human souls. Back then, black people almost had to be portrayed as ‘bad’ to help justify this frightening system to the country’s founders and pioneers. I guess that bragging about boosting earnings by not paying for labor may have sounded a bit calculating…
Maybe you’ve seen “Bowling for Columbine.” If you haven’t, you may want to. Michael Moore talks a lot about the American fixation with firearms and with instilling a fear of Black people. We don’t have to rely on such a recent work to talk about this issue. Book after book has been written on the topic. A May 1991 article in The Atlantic Monthly by Thomas Byrne Edsall and Mary D. Edsall discusses the polarization of race and politics in the United States since the 1960s. More specifically, it talks about CRIME:
“Crime became a shorthand signal, to a crucial group of white voters, for broader issues of social disorder, evoking powerful ideas about authority, status, morality, self-control, and race.”
My dear childhood playmates thought of two kinds of black people: me and the CRIMINALS. That’s it. Not working class people and regular folk — just me versus thugs. Black experience was polarized for them: my home in our comfortable suburb versus the ghetto.
And so the police officer (barking at me even before my spinning teacher started to do that morning) might have had the same idea in mind. That’s right. This woman in a skullcap and all-black warm-up suits didn’t get harassed. I was free without burden of proof. What if I had nothing to do with Harvard? What if the officer hadn’t assumed me to be the “Good Black?”
One must wonder.
In this month of celebration for black history, I remain reverent and grateful as I think of the millions of Africans who died as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean in chains; the men and women who built up much of the wealth that our nation now knows with no compensation except for lashes left on their backs. I pray for the already-delivered souls of children conceived by force to satisfy a greedy ruling class. I cry as I think of the families torn apart for generation after generation -leaving a legacy of broken homes that still exists today. I truly walk on the backs of those who
came before me.
I live this life as a black woman in America. I am not exempt from insulting assumptions about my person and capabilities nor should I be as long as these assumptions persist. The HBS underground tunnels should not shelter me from everything. There is much work to be done.