Ed Note: Reprinted From July 2009 - the action described below with Louis Gates made the national news (look it up if you want to know more) and is very interesting in the light of recent events involving the police and racism.
I believe that the incident with Louis Gates (noted scholar and friend to Obama) would have gone differently if a friend, a "white guy" had been there with him and the policeman. This is an observation based on experience.
I have a friend who I have known for around 40 years and he is a large angry black man and I am a small white dude. And we have traveled together and been in a lot of different situations together involving the "authorities" and the police as well as businesses. And in many situations it has appeared to help that one of us was white to balance the situation. And frankly we have been wrong on occasion, too (like speeding or some minor infraction). But the situation never escalated too far and though angry - we have been treated reasonably well. Plus my friend is very assertive about human rights and justice and that tests authority figures. Another observation - that police who are usually white react differently to a situation when there is at least one white guy there with a minority person than with no white guys. Check this out! Or just look at situations as you go by at traffic stops or incidents - one or two minorities and a lot of white faces - all police.
As a white person it helps if you realize that minorities are treated differently by the white power structure and they as a minority are aware of that. Though hanging with a minority sometimes causes you to loose your privileged status, as well. Here is a funny example that happened many years ago in Detroit, Michigan.
The same black friend and I went into a large downtown Chevy auto dealership circa 1971 and were looking at new station wagons. (This was for a transportation project for the City of Detroit.) There was a desk with about five white salesmen across the showroom who were yucking it up about something and though we were the only customers in the place ignored us. Then out of blue a black salesman showed up and asked what we were interested in and we said a station wagon and he showed it to us and quoted deals etc. We said the price was fine and we would take five. After we signed the order he asked us to wait a minute - he wanted to show it to his manager and then proceeded to go to the group which had ignored us and showed them the deal. Watching from a distance - you could see some recognition that they had all screwed up and missed an especially good sale and commission. So sometimes it does work out naturally for that teaching moment.
Maybe it doesn't always help to support your minority friend but it can't hurt and it's still a good idea!
So here is the suggestion - the next time you see something coming down or even before it comes down go stand with the black, brown, oriental, Native American guy or gal and be a friend. (Yes - that could mean to a perfect stranger!) And stay with it until the situation is resolved. What kind of situations - here's one - a minority has locked his keys in his car and is trying to use a coat hanger to get in - stand bye - it will look like he is helping you and will not get accused of breaking and entering. (Yeah, OK try and make sure he isn't doing that, too.) Or how about an auto accident - where all the parties are minorities - ask if you can help sort it out. You can even use your cell camera to take photos which might be a help later. If this sounds like a good samaritan then maybe it is, dig it. A caveat - suggest you stay clear of domestic disputes - they can turn funny quick and may be too much to handle. Another dangerous situation might be a fight between young guys. You may not be a help here and most fight involving the young are somewhat ego centered- and usually about a girl.
Here is another example - a dispute in a store over shoddy merchandise, return policy or poor treatment. Another good place to put in your two cents - "Hey - I think this guy has a point " said loudly. The customer after all is always right! (Or should be.) The other thing you can do is ratchet down the situation by clearly and softly explaining the issues to "the authority". Participate if it helps but be supportive.
Tone and manner can alter and de-escalate a troubling moment. And it helps to keep the issue clearly in view.
"But officer Mr. Gates is clearly tired and upset and it is his home and we should all leave and let him address the stuck door".
So stand by when you can and of course keep cool and clear and only get involved to help the situation. Sometimes just being there is enough.
"Am I my brothers keeper - No just his friend".
And if anyone has any feedback, suggestions, articles or questions, please drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org !
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