Black And Tired In This American Newsroom
I didn't realize that I was black until I was 11.
I was a mixed kid. I grew up in Westwood. My dad wore a suit and tie every day.
He worked as a volunteer mediator with the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office and that put us in contact with law enforcement and city officials on the highest level. Mayor Richard Riordan once taught me how to shake hands. When I bashfully told him that I hoped to run for president in 2024, he told me I had his vote.
When Los Angeles housing costs threatened my father's dream of keeping his family in the safest neighborhood possible, we moved to the Inland Empire. I was in fifth grade. The culture shock was palpable.
I hadn't even lived there a year when a classmate felt compelled to inform me that I don't "act black."
And then came what I now sardonically refer to as my "cannot unsee" period.
My dad asked our neighbor's daughter to stop playing on our driveway. I vividly remember what happened next. Her mother told her, matter-of-factly, that she didn't need to listen to my father. "We have more rights than them," she said as we listened.
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My world changed. In public spaces, I became hyperaware of my blackness. Still, I thought I could assimilate.
I bought into Rancho Cucamonga-style conservatism: a spoken and unspoken doctrine that sifted my people into two groups: "black people and niggers." Yes, that's verbatim. Hard R. People told me that I was in the first group, that I was "not like the others."
I'm ashamed to admit it, but adolescent me started to believe it. The coming years would erode that notion.
By my early 20s, all of my close friends who looked like me had experienced racism with law enforcement. At least three have looked down the barrel of a gun. I accepted these terrifying moments as a pseudo rite of passage.
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My test came in the late 00s in Corvallis, Oregon: a small town that I found oddly like Andy Griffith's Mayberry. The fly-in-a-milk-glass vibes were strong.
I was 21. I had rented bikes while visiting an ex, and returned them to the shop. Within minutes of leaving, I noticed several police cars slowly patrolling the city's quaint streets. Hoping to make myself appear to be less of a threat, I smiled at the officers in a passing patrol car. I even gave myself a pep-talk. "They're not here for you."
After a few tense moments, I sensed a squad car pulling up behind me.
"Hey, Big Guy."
"Excuse me, sir!"
"Oh, hello, officer," I said, my voice instinctually raised a few octaves so as to mask my disappointment.
"We got word that someone saw you taking some bikes and rattling car doors," the officer said.
In reality, I had removed bikes from the back of a truck and checked the lock. Clearly, I should have known better than to, you know, live life.
I kept my receipt and showed it to the officer. That cleared things up quickly. What would have happened if I didn't have that receipt? I often wonder how the situation might have gone. George Floyd ended up dead over a report that he tried to pass a fake $20 bill. I'd hate to know what could happen over a few cheap bikes.
The Corvallis encounter confirmed to me that I was not exempt from the plight of my people because I wore collared shirts and spoke well. The last vestiges of that belief were shattered that day. For so long, I wanted, needed, to think that there was something I could do to be safe in the world. There wasn't. There never was, really.
I came to this newsroom in 2015 to work on KPCC's Take Two show by way of CBS Radio. I took the lead on segments about race and policing. I'd bring on community organizers, tactical experts, historians, faith leaders, heck, even Martin Luther King Jr.'s speechwriter. I felt that I was living my purpose and bringing healing to the land.
Then came George Floyd.
I think it broke me.
There's so much work to be done: so many conversations to facilitate, and yet, in my heart, I feel what can only be described as hopelessness. Despair might be a close second. Anguish a third. There is so much to be done, and yet, I feel like I have little left in me.
I think I actually believed that I could change the world by amplifying the truth.
Today, I realize now that my fight for justice and reconciliation, perhaps much like your fight, is but a small battle in a larger war over America's narrative. Victories are few and far between. Progress is difficult to measure. And yet, I know that it is only by embracing the truth of how our society was designed that we will ever have the clarity to remake it. Widespread public angst isn't a quirk of the system, it's a result.
God, it's so hard to tell your story, America.
But I'll keep at it.
At a time when powers both foreign and domestic attempt to co-opt the narrative of this day, we will continue to polish the mirror and hold it to your face.
A Greek proverb teaches that "A society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in."
And so today, I'll sit back down and do the most that anybody can do during this time: try to create something that heals the world, even if true change is something that I may never see.