A Letter to Howard
Wednesday, June 24, 2020
Howard, It’s highly unlikely that you will ever see this letter. I have no idea where you are now or what you might be doing, as I haven’t seen you in over 20 years. Lately, though, your stories have been coming back into my mind.
It was the 1970s and we were both working at a high school in Southern California. We were only casual acquaintances so you might not remember me. But I remember you, one of only three African-Americans on a staff of 150 people. I was in my early 30s; you were a few years younger. While I still had some 1960s rebelliousness kicking around in me, you were more conservative. I recall that you didn’t smoke, drink or use drugs, and that church was an important part of your life. That’s about all I remember—except for that day you told your stories.
It was springtime and the campus was roiled by racial unrest. African-American students were angry and protesting, feeling that they were disciplined more often and more harshly than white kids, and were more likely to be suspended or expelled. Studies over recent years have shown that these claims were not groundless.
Many of the white teachers, having had little or no experience with African-Americans, felt that the charges were untrue and that Black students were seeing prejudice where none existed. The administration set up a series of meetings to examine the issue. At one of these the principal asked you to share some of your experiences. There were surprised looks on many of the teachers’ faces. What could you, a model citizen, have in common with these Black kids that were causing all the trouble?
You began to speak, and when you were finished people were stunned. They had no idea.
Two of your stories have haunted me recently. In one you talked about your college days, how you would jog from your apartment to the campus. It wasn’t long before a police car pulled up and you were ordered to stop. Someone had seen a large Black man running through this affluent white neighborhood and assumed you were fleeing a burglary and your backpack contained not textbooks but stolen goods. This incident kept repeating itself, so you had to say goodbye to your morning jogs through those shady suburban streets.
In another incident you told us what happened once when you walked into a convenience store to buy a pack of gum. A white woman living across the street saw you go in and called the police to report a robbery in progress. When you came out of the store cops grabbed you, smashed your head down on the hood of a car and handcuffed you. When it was all over, did they even bother to apologize?
On May 25, George Floyd was choked to death, on camera, by a Minneapolis police officer while three other officers looked on. He kept his knee on Floyd’s neck for over eight minutes, kept it there when Floyd gasped that he couldn’t breathe, kept it there when Floyd cried out to his mother, kept it there well after Floyd had lost consciousness. And so George Floyd’s name was added to a long list of Black men murdered by police.
When I saw the video I was sickened and enraged. I can only imagine what you must have felt. If I am driving home at night and see red lights flashing in my rearview mirror I might wonder if it’s about the broken taillight I’ve been meaning to get fixed, and I might be annoyed because I’m already late getting home. In a similar moment, you might wonder if this will be the night when you don’t go home at all.
It’s been over 40 years, Howard, since I heard you tell those stories and not much has changed. I live in an America where my white skin grants me privilege and safety. You live in an America where your black skin exposes you to daily indignities and dangers I never have to think about.
The fires that blazed in American cities just a short time ago have been extinguished. I can only hope that the fires of righteous anger burning in the hearts of protestors now filling the nation’s streets do not fade and flicker out. If nothing significant changes this time, then I fear for the future of this country more than I have ever feared before.