In September 2002, I moved to Arizona to begin working for the same company for which I work today. (Obviously, I am happy with the decision I made!) Having spent many years in the South, I was very accustomed to the constant presence of racism and hatred. In Georgia, this typically would come in the form of outrageous statements made by Caucasian people while in my presence. They assumed that I would agree with whatever was being said, until I made sure that they knew otherwise.
What interested me about Arizona, however, was that the racism was not aimed towards the few African-American people who lived in the Valley of the Sun. Instead, the outrageous statements made by Caucasian people were aimed towards Mexican-Americans and/or Mexicans. Again, I think people thought I would agree, until I made sure that they knew otherwise.
Let me be clear. I'm certainly not suggesting that ALL Caucasian people made outrageous statements to me. In fact, very few did - in Georgia or in Arizona. And I will freely admit that I heard African-American people say things that were openly hostile towards Caucasian people. But I also witnessed many events over the years, that opened my eyes quite a bit. Posted here are just a few. There were many, many more.
Let's go back to 1975. Friday night, riding around in a car with four friends. Two of us are Caucasian and three of us are African-American. We stop to put air in a tire. This is rural North Carolina and the store we stop at is closed. The next thing we know, two cop cars pull up with blue lights flashing and the three African-Americans are thrown to the ground. I and the other Caucasian person are asked if we are okay. Because I am only 16, I don't have any sense and I begin yelling at the cops that they are idiots. Obviously, this does not go over well. Once they figure out that we are not kidnap victims and that we are not attempting to break into the store where we had stopped for air, they let us go. I am furious. My African-American friends, having survived similar situations on multiple occasions, are amused at my reaction.
Fast forward to 1988. A wealthy friend of mine, an African-American, is walking in the Buckhead neighborhood of the city of Atlanta, from point A to point B. Although he is wearing an expensive hand-tailored suit, expensive shoes and is quite well-groomed, he can hear drivers locking their car doors as he passes by. He describes this to me shortly after arriving at his destination. I express indignation. He shrugs his shoulders. He is insulted by the sound of the car locks, but for him it is par for the course.
Fast forward to 1989. I am attending a conference in Jackson, Mississippi. I am one of a handful of Caucasian people from Georgia attending this conference, along with quite a few African-American colleagues. Quite a few states are represented at this meeting and each state has its own hospitality suite. Our suite is the dance floor. We are having a wonderful time, enjoying each other's company, laughing, talking, dancing and playing cards. Suddenly there is a commotion at the door. We all look over and a deputy sheriff is standing at the door to our suite. He is gesturing wildly and yelling at a member of our group. I get up and walk over to see what the problem is. The deputy sheriff is yelling that "you people might get away with this loud partying on your side of the tracks, but you're not going to come over here and be all loud and out of control". Our combined group is spending more money in that hotel than that deputy sheriff will probably earn in his lifetime. He is spitting as he yells. Up close, he is an ugly man, inside and out. One phone call to management removes his ugly butt from our presence, but he has dampened our spirits. It is a reminder that racism can never be behind us.
Fast forward to 1991. I am traveling in a car with my boss, on our way back from a business meeting. It is dusk. Suddenly, the blue lights are flashing behind us. We pull to the side of the road. The police officer signals my boss, an African-American man, to exit the car and walk to the front of the vehicle. My boss complies. I now have a birds-eye view of the cop, who is a Caucasian, screaming at my boss and shaking his finger in his face. This goes on for quite some time. My boss is a brilliant, well-educated man. He stands mutely as the cop screams at him. Finally, he is allowed to return to the car. He gets in and stares straight ahead, breathing slowly. I ask, "What the hell was that about???" My boss shakes his head, turns to me and explains that the cop was upset because one of our headlights is set at an angle that makes it appear to be on bright. He claimed that he spotted it while he was traveling in the opposite direction and turned around to chase us and stop us. This is an obvious lie. We are on a major interstate highway in downtown Atlanta. Even if he did spot a car with a headlight as he described, by the time he turned around at the next exit, we would have been much farther down the road. My boss has been pulled over for DWB - driving while Black.
(Don't jump to the incorrect assumption that I think law enforcement is the problem here. Over the years, beginning in college, I have known and loved many, many law enforcement officers. Just like any profession, there are mostly good people and a few bad apples. Power in the hands of the few bad apples is what causes the problems.)
Fast forward to 2010. Arizona has passed a law that requires people to carry their citizenship paperwork with them. The law also requires police officers to ask for the citizenship paperwork in certain situations and take action if the person asked is unable to produce the paperwork. As I learn about this new law, I am not thinking about abstract concepts such as illegal aliens or political division or even racisim. I am thinking about people in Arizona that I dearly care for - real people - Nadia, Joe, Juana, Anna, Elizabeth. I know what is in store for them. I've lived in Arizona.
What is surprising to me is that intelligent Caucasian people don't seem to get it. They think the Arizona law is about illegal immigration. It's not. It's about car doors being locked when a Black (or Brown) person is coming. It's about being pulled over for DWB. It's about being too loud on this side of the tracks. It gives an excuse for abuse. And anyone who doesn't realize that has never experienced institutionalized racism - or has forgotten, maybe because remembering is too painful. So when I see dear friends joining Facebook groups like "I support the Arizona legislators", I cringe, just like I did in those situations above. White People Behaving Badly - WPBB - is just something I can never get used to.