How would you react?

Friday, July 31, 2009

The arrest of the Louis Gates, the Harvard law professor, has raised quite a "stink" all the way from the White House to coffee shops all over the country. People on both sides of the political spectrum have their "dander" up over who is right or wrong. Well, I for one don't think there is a right or wrong, and I have gone back to a former story of mine to explain my thoughts.

A few years ago I wrote an article about the time my old Sunday School teacher, Paul Gollhofer took me and the rest of our class to a baseball game in Kansas City. This was in the late 50s or early 60s, and the Kansas City Athletics were still in town.

About this time every year they used to play a doubleheader on Sundays. It was a great way for young kids like us to get to see all the baseball we wanted for not much money.

Paul had made a deal with us about the game. If we made every Sunday for six months, he promised to take us to the game. So on a warm summer Sunday we set out in Paul's car for old Municipal Stadium.

It was a long trip to Kansas City back then. There was not one stretch of the four lane at that time, and traffic on U.S. 71 Highway was crowded. It got worse when we began to go up Brooklyn Avenue in downtown east Kansas City.

Then it happened. There were stop lights at almost every corner. It was just about noon and we were due at the ballpark for a one o'clock game. We had been lucky and missed many of the lights, but at one corner the yellow light flashed just before we arrived at the light. Paul put on his breaks and just as we were coming to a stop, we were hit from behind at what seemed a pretty good lick to me.

We were all startled but not hurt. The cars back then had huge front and back bumpers of heavy chrome so the damage was nothing like what it would have been in one of today's plastic wonders.

We all got out of the car and looked at the people who had hit us. The driver was an enormous black man in a white suit. I remember the suit and his red tie so clearly. He also had a very expensive hat with a large red silk band above the brim. I was transfixed by his appearance. I even noticed that he had several rings on his fingers.

There were several young black girls in the car with him. His car was the fanciest big yellow Buick I had ever seen.

He immediately began to apologize, "I'm so sorry, this was all my fault. I was taking these girls home from church and was not watching closely." He went on to tell us that he was a Baptist preacher and that everything was going to be all right.

We all began to look around and I was thinking that we were the only white people that I could see anywhere on the busy street. I don't know if I was scared exactly, but I was not exactly comfortable either.

Within a few minutes two police officers showed up. They were both tall and muscular black officers. One was in a police car, and the other was on a police motorcycle. For a minute the motorcycle was all we boys could look at.

I remember two distinct things from their arrival. The first was how impressive they looked in their uniforms. It was obvious that both men had taken great care with their dress. The uniforms were pressed precisely and looked just perfect.

The second thought I had which I voiced to my best friend Randy Emery, was.... "Paul is in trouble, these black officers will not blame the black preacher for the accident!"

I have often wondered what Paul was thinking at the time. Was he worried about having a class of white boys in an accident in the middle of the "ghetto?"

To my surprise the preacher immediately told the officer exactly what had happened. It seemed like no time at all that the paperwork was finished and insurance information was exchanged. The preacher and the girls encouraged us to have a good time at the game.

My point in looking back at this story is to have each of you ask yourselves how you would have felt in a similar situation. Do you feel comfortable when you are outside your race and comfort zone?

Do you make many trips to areas like the one where the old ballpark used to be? No I doubt that you do, anymore than I would these days.

So here is the truth of the matter. Even though we have our first black president, there is still a lot of fear when it comes to the mixing of the races. There remain many stereotypes that each race views about the other.

Is the fear that some blacks have when law enforcement officers stop them, especially when those officers are white, any more intense than the fear we felt all those years ago at that accident.

I can say this for certain. The professionalism of that preacher and those black officers was beyond reproach. I make no judgment at this time about the white officer who arrested Mr. Gates.

I do think that Mr. Gates and even the president have a sense of fear built into their minds and hearts that has grown for hundreds of years. It's too bad that it had to happen, and that it could not have been handled as well as my story was. Maybe there is a lesson to be learned on both sides. "How would you react if you were in my story or the one of Mr. Gates?