A black man in a country unable to address police and racism


By Evander Baker

I would love to give a shortened version of all of the thoughts I've had in the past several weeks and years (George Floyd isn't new), but I don't think I can do it and still share what I want to share. Pick through it and read what you like.

I try to stay quiet about social issues, not because I'm indifferent.

But mainly because that's often a part of my life.

I'm fortunate that I can often be perceived as "one of the good ones." Even if you don't use the phrase or understand the implications, I'm probably a less threatening person than others. I'm well-educated, gainfully employed with no criminal background, I keep my hair short and, I wear clothes that aren't "urban."

But all the while I'm going about my days, I'm always aware about how I might be perceived at a distance or even up close, because I'm still a black man.

I'm a health inspector.

Yes, I inspect restaurants.

No, they don't like the masks.

The nastiest restaurant is always the one with a roach infestation.

But most of my work is issuing septic permits for new homes. So before a home even begins to be built, I go out in rural north Georgia by myself into an empty field or wooded area or nice subdivision or wherever and appear like I'm walking around aimlessly. I'm driving around Madison County in a car with a Clarke County tag with tinted windows. I know the roads pretty well now, but I'm often driving back and forth on a street in a neighborhood I don't live in, and just statistically speaking, probably not a lot of people who look like me live in either.

About 3 to 7 times a day, I look suspicious to white people.

Now don't get me wrong. I love working for Madison County. And I've worked with a lot of people there either occassionally or regularly who've been very patient with me and have been fair in their frustrations with goverment or me. There's not a situation in which I had an immediate reason to fear for my life at work.

But I'm always on edge.

I come across signs (came across it today) that says stuff like "We don't call 911" and "Shoot first, ask questions later." I mean, I get it. But let's say someone shoots first and asks questions later after I'm shot, they realize that I'm the county health inspector evaluating the property next door, and the tree your grandfather said was the property line isn't the property line the recorded plat I had.

Absolutely, that could be the case with any person walking through the woods in your neighborhood regardless of race.

But we're human. We see differences. We know the demographics of where we stay. You *know* there aren't any black people who live in your neighborhood.

So when I see someone, I always wave and ask "How are you doing?"

I don't do that because I'm friendly. I'm not shy, but I like to stay to myself.

I do it to disarm people who are on guard.

I go ahead and open the door so you can ask me who I am, what I'm doing here, and so you can hear my voice and neutral accent.

You never know who is just overtly aggressive and racist. I don't fear that rare person so much.

I do fear the person who thinks they'll act one way if they saw a strange black guy in the woods behind your house, but when your kids are playing outside and you're aware of riots and looting happening across the nation, you'll grab your shotgun or rifle and not call 911 like Gregory and Travis McMichael.

If something happens, it happens. But I can only control what I can control, and if I can make you feel more comfortable so you don't feel threatened as I do my job, then I'm going to do it.

...I was raised, directly or indirectly, to know how to make white people feel more comfortable.

A lot of black people are getting into that game. My family members were early adopters.

You may feel like I shouldn't have to feel so anxious just doing my job, but if I can lower the chances of making someone suspicious and increase the chances of getting home to my awful, awful cat, then I'm going to do it.

Whether or not that's the reality or not, I wasn't raised around people who are easily fooled by mainstream media. They don't get caught up by what they see on social media. But they do remember enough unsolved cases from south Georgia where some black guy dies after seeing some white girl or is found dead on some railroad tracks.

I'd imagine all black men, more "articulate" and otherwise, have stories like that.

Mine was when I was in school at Washington University in St. Louis.

I don't really hide the story, so you've probably heard about it if you've known me personally long enough.

It was snowing one day soon after I came back from Georgia for Christmas. So that would have been January-ish 2013. "Before Ferguson," but tensions were building long before that. I was walking near my apartment on Forest Park, but I didn't really want to walk on the street to appear suspicious just randomly walking around, so I figured I'd walk on Wash U property since I paid them tens of thousands of dollars to go there.

I'm walking on the medical school campus when I see a police car bend the corner. I hadn't been outside for more than 10 minutes. I probably saw them before they saw me.

I make a point to.

I figure they might just ride by or they might stop, but I prepare myself for when they stop. They pull over where I am, and I immediately take stock of the situation and my environment. I think through really quickly where my wallet is, where my ID is, how I've been taught to respond to questions, and how to make white people with badges more comfortable.

"How are you doing today?"

"I'm good."

"Put your hands on the vehicle."

So I put my hands on the vehicle.

They take off the backpack I'm wearing and pat me down. They ask me what I'm doing here. I say I'm a student, and I wanted to go for a walk on campus instead of in the street. I thought it would be safer.

They ask if I have my Wash U ID, and I said I did. I said I was going to check my pockets, and slowly (but not too slowly) check my pockets already realizing it was in my backpack. I told them that it's actually in my backpack, so I go into the pocket and check there. I pull it and my ID out and put my hands back on the vehicle "assuming the position."

They see the ID. They call it in to someone (I guess there are fake Wash U IDs?) By this time, another police car bends the corner and two more police officers come out to help surround me.

So now I have four police officers surrounding me with my hands still on the hood of the first police car on the campus I'm a student at. At this time, I don't know why.

That lasts for maybe 3 minutes and they get the call back saying I'm a student. They ask me more questions, and I tell them I just wanted to go for a walk in the snow, because there isn't snow where I'm from. They ask where I'm from. I say I'm from Georgia. And one of the officers loosens up and begins talking about that one lady who loves cooking with butter.

...somewhat fitting.

They say I can take my hands off of the car, so I do so and stand at attentive ease trying to making sure my hands don't move, are at my sides, and are open.

It turns out that there had been break-ins near a campus day care, and they got a call from the day care that they saw someone suspicious. They let me go without any further interaction.

I went home and laid in bed for 3 days.

That wasn't my only negative interaction with police that might have had race as a factor.

And all I learned was that if I'm going to take a walk to take my black ass to Forest Park.

Not that I might have been profiled or that law enforcement overreacted to a suspected non-violent burglar. I don't know if the supposed suspect was a person that required 4 people like was used for George Floyd. Maybe that's police protocol. I don't know.

All I know was that I made a mistake, but I was able to put on a good little black boy face for the white people with badges and get home safely.

Some people might say "Yeah, you're not a medical student. You shouldn't have been on the medical school campus."

That's what the other police officer on patrol said when I walked through the parking lot. I was walking through to get to my apartment after I got off the light rail, and he told me to walk around on the streets. The other students didn't have to though.

Some people might say that's unfair.

I don't really care if it was or was not. I just wanted to go for a walk and go home.

Some people might have wanted me to declare my rights in that moment, which would have been the dumbest thing I could have done.

If you are white and the police are giving us grief, please just do what the police officers say.

I wasn't raised to fight for justice. I was raised to get home safely, because messed up people are in the world, and even if not, the world and how it functions doesn't work for me like it does for other people.

Up to this point, and even after, sociology and all of the theories involved to describe systematic oppression and such are academic. They're interesting to discuss and talk about with my white friends at a Jittery Joe's or late at night on campus, but it does not play out when the blue shows up.

Blue lives matter more to me as a black person than you might think.

That's when I go back to what I was raised on. I'm not smarter than Mr. Officer. I am subservient to Mr. Officer. I have nothing to say other than responding to the questions you ask.

And I've been able to go home without any further incident each time.

Even with the recent deaths, I can't help but think the same thing a lot of people who feel these recent deaths (that we know about) who don't think this is about race think:

I'm not going to go running in a neighborhood I don't live in.

I'm not going to spend my time loitering in a place.

I'm going to say hello to people looking at me funny.

I'm not going to hang out with people who are smoking even weed or anything like that.

I'm not going to commit even light crimes if I can help it.

All I learned from George Floyd's death is that I need to learn how to not panic, breathe very lightly if a police officer puts their knee on my neck, and hope they feel like I'm properly dominated and made submissive to their will or at least fake unconsciousness and hope they get up.

I already knew stuff like that happens. 2020 just makes it easier to get on camera.

---

I feel a little bad, because I don't believe I'm as shocked by Floyd's death as others. It's not really weighing heavily on me as much as a lot of people. I don't really feel a need to say how awful racism is and how it exists and doesn't exist. I knew that. I majored in understanding the basics of it. I've had my share of lived experiences.

But I guess what I'm interested in seeing in what people do who do seem to be more outraged.

I wonder what made people want to protest now so violently. I figure it was just seeing images and the video. Seeing and hearing George Floyd die right at the front of your smartphone. Maybe it makes people aware of the privileges they already had.

Between being adults with our own jobs and responsibilities and pursuing life, liberty, and happiness, I don't think people in America can so easily do the things to actually combat any systematic oppression.

It is nice to know that people around me care. I truly believe the people who have called me, of many races, do care and want true justice.

But I guess I'm just not super hopeful that most of us, in enough numbers, can keep that weight on themselves in the midst of living their lives to fight for years and decades for equality.

I don't feel like enough people will prioritize that to take up a significant portion of their resources, energy, and lives.

Working on Saturday doesn't just mean you work one extra day. It also means you get one less day to rest before you go into a new week.

So whether it is becoming engaged in different communities and their lives, reading certain books, going to protests, or making long posts on social media, that not only takes effort, it takes time away from what you really want to do in your lives.

And I've never believed that people are gonna prioritize that for me (we're working on that in therapy) let alone for black people they don't know.

Heck, I'm trying to figure how to find time and how to get more involved. I don't believe that just because I'm a minority means I get to wait on white people do come in and do the work before I get involved again.

I hate when people say that people have to educate themselves about racism and their privilege.

To understand that mess in a practical life, you need to take in two or three intro courses' equivalent in humanities and social sciences courses. And we just don't really have the time or really want...truly want to make the time for all of that.

That's the reality for the most people. So even though I feel like those who are tired about explaining privilege to the privileged have to do so, the privileged are also not going to go read White Fragility (I've heard that from a couple of different people, so I assume it's an actual book) before they read a less challenging bestseller, play with their kid after work, or building towards their dream job.

I don't know about you, but it's taken me 3 weeks to get a quarter way through the first novel I've read in years.

And I was the best reader in my elementary school. Or at least I had the most Accelerated Reader points K-5.

I didn't get the bicycle the winner was supposed to get.

They said it would be unfair to the 5th grader who started a month after me.

She had 200 points. Second in the school.

I had 250.6.

I was in 3rd grade.

My point is that I'm not really expecting much from most of you guys, all things said and done. I'm just saying it bluntly.

There is no intent to shame anyone. I'm not trying to pull off any reverse psychology. I'm just an adult myself, and if a trans person ends up dying in a similar fashion, I don't know if I'm going to have or make time for that cause.

At the same time, I did want to share that I only expect so much from people in general. I don't expect everyone to be exceptional. We have trouble getting chores done before we go to sleep at night. I do, at least.

So I focus on what I can do to reduce my chances of becoming a victim of police brutality or to disarm others who may have preconceived or persisting notions of who I am (or who I will be if I get angry or if I find their daughter attractive or whatever.)

I'm practical.

As such, this is going to happen again. And again. And again. Even if you don't see it.

It may get better one day, but it won't be anytime soon.

Focus your efforts in changing the world on that one thing you feel strongly about. Most real adults with jobs and kids and spouses and hobbies and dreams don't have time to pursue all of the ways to achieve justice.

So focus on what you can with the time you have. Try not to feel shame about being exhausted by the news. It's hard on everyone who cares about other humans.

I think people would disagree saying that you should try harder and make the time. I'm just not all that hopeful that people will?

So invest that time in what causes you feel most strongly about. But do invest your resources there.

People experiencing homelessness, police brutality, unjust incarceration practices, rights for the LGBTQ+ community, helping to break glass ceilings for women...whatever you feel most strongly about, I'd say focus your attention there, because I don't believe humans are built to fight all of the causes all of the time.

I feel like that's the only way to affect change: if you're truly interested and inspired by the causes you're taking your time out for in an already busy life.

I didn't watch any of the coverage in media Saturday. I was playing Persona 5 Royal.

It's a game where you can fight and achieve an achievement literally called "true justice." You can actually achieve it there if you grind enough.

Evander Baker is a public health official and Athens resident

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