“Had the gold Nissan been occupied by white people and I were black, I thought, there was no question that a crime had been committed. Hell, Al Sharpton would have been on the next flight to Denver”
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I have a story to share. It’s about something that happened to me that sent my mind spinning and has led me to reevaluate my perspectives on race and racism. It is particularly timely in the wake of the controversy stirred by Riley Cooper, the Philadelphia wide receiver who was caught on video shouting “nigger” at a Kenny Chesney concert and is now being provided counseling by the Eagles before he can return to team activities.You have already noticed that I am not referring to that word by its politically correct abbreviation. As queasy as it makes me just to type the word “nigger,” I feel that it’s impossible to have an honest dialogue without throwing it out there. Besides, as the great comedian Louie CK has pointed out, all that is accomplished by abbreviating the word is to make other people say it in their heads.
My story takes place in a drive-thru on South Broadway, just north of the Englewood border. I try not to eat fast food. Not only is it unhealthy, it’s impersonal. I prefer locally owned takeout places like Santiago’s and the new Moontower Tacos. Last Friday, though, I had a hankering for the Chicago dogs they serve at Sonic. They have tater tots, too. I love tater tots. I decided to pop in and grab some quick grub before heading to the little league park for my son’s game. It was Friday afternoon and it was hot outside. The line of cars was about five deep for the window. The service was efficient and I advanced quickly. Within only a couple of minutes I was second in line, behind a gold Nissan Sentra. I fiddled with my radio. All I could find was commercials.
Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye I saw something white sail through the air. Then I heard the unmistakable sound of a plastic drink cup hitting the ground. I hardly had time to realize what was happening before another drink cup, this one a 44-ouncer, landed on the pavement in front and to the right of my pickup. Then a crumpled McDonald’s bag took flight, followed by a french fry box and some used napkins. The people in the Nissan were being handed their items through the window glass and at the same time eliminating the waste from their last fast food experience by tossing it right out onto the ground. My blood began to boil.
Having no idea who might be in the car, I exited by pickup through the driver’s side door, walked around past my blistering radiator and approached the passenger side window of the Nissan.I might have been well advised not to get out of my vehicle. I’m guessing most people would not have. While it was a gut reaction, I was aware of the many people around me. There were cars in the drive-in docks of the 1950’s style Sonic, being served by waitresses on foot. There were six or seven cars behind me in the drive-thru lane, employees at the window who could see me clearly and a camera pointed directly at me, not to mention heavy traffic only six feet away on southbound Broadway. I felt like I was safe enough to confront the litterbugs.
What I was not protected from was their racist intimidation.
I walked up to the passenger side window of the Nissan and before I even saw who was inside I said, “I think you dropped something.” It was the most innocuous thing I could think of to say. I don’t know what I thought would happen then. I would have had to have been pretty naïve to assume that somebody would get out of the car and pick up the garbage strewn around it. I was mostly just expressing my disgust. I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into until I bent at the waist and looked into the car.
Sitting in the driver’s seat was a very heavy black girl in her mid twenties with beads woven into her hair and gold caps on two of her front teeth. Another gal, who might actually have outweighed the driver, sat in the back. In the passenger seat was a muscle bound African American male, also in his early to mid-twenties, with his hair in cornrows, arranged tightly on top of his head. He, too, had one gold-capped tooth.I am a big guy. I stand 6’4” and weigh somewhere north of 250 pounds. But I was scared of the kid on the passenger seat. He looked like he could make a meal out of me and he was none too impressed that I had the nerve to approach the Nissan.
He pointed to the trash he had extricated from the car and he said to me, “Pick it up, nigger.” Then the fat woman in the driver’s seat chimed in with, “Yeah, white trash honkey!” To this the man added, “Pick it the fuck up, cracker!” The barrage of racial epithets was relentless. Each of the three people in the Nissan unloaded on me in such a way that I couldn’t get a word in edgewise. I tried to say “so this is about race?”, but my opponents had adopted a strategy of verbal carpet-bombing that left me voiceless in the exchange.
They were pointing at me and shouting at me and calling me every name in the book for “whitey,” peppering in “nigger” with about every fifth word. I was a white trash, nigger, honkey, cracker, nigger, bitch, faggot, nigger cracker. And I was going to get my ass kicked…or so they said.
Luckily, the altercation did not become physical. A Sonic manager had emerged from the building and another white guy about my age had gotten out of his car and was standing behind me. Food was delivered through the drivers side window of the Nissan and I snapped a picture of its rear license plate. Pulling out my phone caused the man in the passenger seat to get out of the car, glare at me and give the universal gesture for “come get me.” The driver shouted at him to get back in the car and pulled slowly forward.
The incident was not over.
I was given my Chicago dog, large cola and tater tots for free. The manager of the Sonic just wanted me to leave as quickly as possible. But I could not leave. The gold Nissan was idling at the curb, waiting for me. I put my pickup in park and started calling the police. I have the number for Englewood police non-emergency saved in my contacts. Unfortunately, I was in Denver, not Englewood. I called the number anyway because I thought it would be the fastest way to get the number to call the Denver police department.Before I could call the Denver police the driver, probably frightened that I had called the cops, began to pull out of the Sonic parking lot. But before the Nissan sped away on Broadway it stopped at the intersection with Vassar street. The passenger shouted “How you like this cracker motherfucker?” and threw a load of garbage twice the size of the first one out onto Vassar. Then all three people flipped me the bird and they were gone.
I pulled my truck into one of the drive-in bays and sat angrily, calculating my next move. Was I the victim of a crime? I certainly felt like one. I looked up “racial intimidation” on my smart phone. Oddly, one of the first links I found was to a Colorado revised statute dated 2007 which very clearly defines what the state calls “ethnic intimidation.” Among the phrases included is this one “A person commits ethnic intimidation if, with the intent to intimidate or harass another person because of that person’s race, color, religion, ancestry or national origin.” But does that apply to me? I’m white.
Had the gold Nissan been occupied by white people and I were black, I thought, there was no question that a crime had been committed. Hell, Al Sharpton would have been on the next flight to Denver if three whites were threatening me and calling me nigger. Three times I entered the phone number for Denver police and three times I failed to dial it. I wasn’t injured. The incident was over. But the inequity of it all was eating me alive. It hadn’t once even crossed my mind to return their racial fire with epithets of my own. I had made it about the garbage and the despicable behavior of the people in the car. They had made it about race.
Finally I did call the police dispatcher. After speaking to the woman on the phone for several minutes she asked me if I wanted her to send a car. I said yes. I was going to make a point, to “stand my ground” as it were. I was going to file an ethnic intimidation complaint.
As I sat in the Sonic parking lot waiting for a squad car to arrive I flipped repeatedly between following through and canceling the cop. I waited over a half hour before I realized that I needed to get to the baseball field for my son’s game. I was already running late, there was still no sign of a cop and the paperwork was going to take a while. So I called the number again and canceled the call. The helpful dispatcher explained that I can visit a precinct office to file a report at any time. I turned my radio up and left. Big Al and Dmac were on.
It’s been a week since that happened and not an hour has gone by that I haven’t reflected on the incident at Sonic. That Riley Cooper is in the mess he is in has only fanned the flames of my confusion. Like so many things, the confrontation has left me with more questions than it has answers.
The first thing I wonder about is the race-reversal question. Would this not have been an occurrence worthy of the evening news had the people in the car been white and I had been black? Is it fair that what happened to me was “no big deal” but that it certainly would have been a big deal had the shoe been on the other foot? Would the manager of the Sonic have called the police himself if he had seen a black person taking that kind of verbal abuse from a car full of whites?
I wonder whether I brought it all on myself. Should I have sat idly by watching the people in the Nissan litter and said nothing? Was I doing the right thing or was I begging for trouble?
Did I know when I saw the first plastic cup hit the ground that the occupants of the car were black? If I did assume that much was I being a racist? Or is the fact that behavior like that is stereotypical something beyond my control? Honestly, when I saw who was in the Nissan a little part of me said “of course.” I wish it weren’t that way. But how much of what we perceive about race is based on our experiences?
Why were the people in the Nissan so irresponsible, so disrespectful as to assume that other people should have to pick up after them? Is it because they have been mistreated – or is it because they somehow feel entitled? What goes through a person’s head? How can anybody launch garbage out the car window and think nothing of it? What association can be fairly made between that mentality and race?
Was feeling the way I felt after the encounter something I somehow deserved? Was the whole mess fate’s way of making me reflect on my own attitudes? Was I meant to feel racism’s bite?
Had I filed the complaint with the police department would I have thickened the line that divides us racially? Would turnabout have been fair play, or just white rage?
Have the people in that car ever been exposed to racism on that level? Is my perception that shouting “nigger” at black people something almost never happens – especially in Colorado – completely false?
Which divide is wider? The one between white people and black people or the one between people who throw trash out of car windows and those who can’t imagine throwing trash out of car windows?
I am not a racist. I have always embraced tolerance and I have never uttered a racial slur in anger towards anybody. I am, however, aware of differences in cultures. I even find humor in them. I make racist jokes from time to time. For the most part, though, I celebrate diversity and the differences between Americans. I believe part of what makes our country great is that it embraces people of all cultures.
I am fearful that the progress we have made in our society toward colorblindness is too one-sided. I feel like white people put pressure on themselves not to see race as a factor in anything while people of other races are closing ranks and becoming more racist toward whites. This is especially true among young black men, some of whom seem to feel as though white society owes them the chance to turn the tables. The racial divide, it sometimes seems, is only shifting and it’s not something anybody seems too comfortable talking about.
In the wake of the Trayvon Martin shooting and the trial that followed, cable news outlets have encouraged Americans to “have an honest dialogue” about race. We cannot accomplish that until we are willing to be honest. We tend to pander instead. Everyone is at least a little bit racist.
If Riley Cooper were black and he made the comment he made about kicking every white boy’s ass at the concert his incident would be a non-story. If tomorrow his teammate, LeSean McCoy, who has been critical of Cooper, called a fellow player “honkey” or “cracker” the media would not even take an interest.
I understand that black racism toward white people is considered different that white racism against blacks; but after what happened to me last Friday, I am struggling to understand why.
Normally I don’t really look for comments with my posts but this time I am hoping for dozens. This is a conversation I want to have. I am opening the driver’s door to my truck now and I am walking out toward your passenger side windows, South Standers. Let’s discuss this.