About five years ago, I was swimming in the Strawberry Canyon swimming pool, which is associated with the UC Berkeley faculty and their families. It was a hot, sunny day, and I had been teaching all morning. Taking advantage of the faculty prices, I find swimming a great bargain. As I thrust my right arm over my shoulder and turned my head, I caught a glimpse of two policemen standing at the end of the pool.
Laughingly I said to myself, as a Kafkaesque joke, what they going to do? Arrest me? Ask me for my identification?
But sure enough, as I came to the turn, one of the cops beckoned to me. He wanted me to get out of the pool. Why? Had a relative died? What was so important that two policemen were waiting to yank me out of the lane?
The first thing the cops asked was where was my identification. I told them that I taught at Berkeley.
You do? They asked skeptically. Let’s see your identification, they asked threateningly, and seemed not to realize that I was dripping wet.
I pointed to my pants and my wallet on my towel on the grass at the other end of the pool.
When I heard the news about my friend Harvard Professor Henry L. Gates Jr. being arrested by the Boston police, I thought of that afternoon.
As I walked through the all-white sunbathers—most of them in various stages of getting brown like me—I felt humiliated and clueless. Most whites believe that if a policeman asks for their identification, they have the right to ask why. But if you are a black person, you are smart not to ask them any questions. From the beginning, I understood that by giving me mean and nasty looks, the police implied that if I asked too many questions, I was setting myself up for a charge of resisting, or as Sgt.Crowely said of Professor Gates, of being “uncooperative” or “difficult.”
I got to my pants and gave them my driving license and UC Berkeley identification. They took the information and called in on their walkie-talkies. As I stood there, I was shocked at the way the others around me passively watched.
At some point, I complained, “I teach here,” meaning Cal, “and I have a Ph.D…”
The cop was a wit. “Yeah,” he laughed grimly, “ and I … uh … have just an eighth-grade education!” The other policeman joined in the laughter.
In other words, it was like the old joke, “What’s a black man with a Ph.D.?” A nigger. In racist America, a white man with only an eighth-grade education is superior to any black man with a Ph.D. Underlying his remark was the assumption, which is still prevalent in our society today: that all whites are superior to any black person. A black man with a Ph.D. doesn’t rate against a cop with an eighth-grade education—not if that cop is white.
Finally, when they gave me my identification back, I asked them why they pulled me out of the pool. Somebody working at the facility had called in because some guy had been harassing people, and they thought he was back.
I asked one more question. Could they give me the name of the person who called? No, they could not. One of the policemen warned me to stay away from the swimming pool. Have a good day.
I sat down shocked and drained. I felt that I had been humiliated, which is what the policemen wanted me to feel.
I went home and began writing a rap song. I had never written a rap song before, but it was the most appropriate thing to do because I could express my anger and I could get it out of my system, out of my body. (I began to understand what rappers do when they have no other outlet.) I told my friends about the incident, and that I had written a rap to get it out. Noted author Ishmael Reed heard about my rap song and published it.
What I find disturbing is that as black intellectuals and academics, we are living and working in environments where whites often project onto us their deepest, most illogical and improbable racist worldviews.
Most whites who read this will not, I suspect, believe that white policemen would pull a black professor out of the swimming pool. I didn’t either until it happened to me. What the incident taught me is that our society invests white people with enormous power: any white person who sees a black man or woman in a social space where only whites should be can pick up the phone and call the police.
Lucia Whalen worked at the Harvard Magazine for fifteen years at Harvard University, yet she couldn’t recognize one of the most famous writers in publishing. Like many “educated” whites, she projected a racist template when she saw two black men out of their social space. Like Professor Gates and his black chauffeur, a black man swimming in a white faculty pool is out of his designated space. Instead of seeing two black men having a problem with the door, she saw two black men burglarizing a house.
In too many instances, black people with Ph.D.s are told by their colleagues that they are brilliant, and welcome, but that is not how the campus police often see blacks on campus. Many coworkers also smile at the only black working in the department but secretly wish they were not there.
Academic-related racism is a projection that our country has inherited from the age of slavery and is a long way from dealing with.
When I went back to the Strawberry Canyon swimming facility the next day to inquire, the young white and Asian workers said they had no idea who could have called the police. Like Lucia Whalen, who called the police on Professor Gates, these young people were not questioned about the incident and were not held responsible. They are looked upon as citizens doing a service for the good of society.
Even now that we have a black president and even as liberal academics embrace him, there are many whites who still project their own low views of themselves on any black person they choose.
I never went back to the Strawberry Canyon swimming pool. The message that blacks are not wanted there really got through to me. Last week, a black friend of mine, a Ph.D. from Princeton, took his seven-year-old son to the faculty swimming pool. He was so embarrassed by the stares and hostility his son received from the “white only” population that he said he will never go back there.
Cecil Brown is novelist and writer.