August 18, 2010

I Once Was a Racial Profiler

The subject of racial profiling isn't something any of us should take lightly. Just ask Edwin McFarlane, a 15-year-old 6'3" 270lb black male, accused of "taking" a Latina toddler while shopping in a Burlington Coat Factory in Florida.

As the story goes, the child became separated from her mother and the young man, who had come to the mall with his mother noticed the lost child and was trying to help her find her mother. When the mother realized the child was missing other shoppers told her a black man had taken the child.

Police were called, the teenager was charged at the mother's request (charges that were later dropped) and all is well in the world again. McFarlane had no record. He was doing what any of us would have done - being a good samaritan. Unfortunately, the young teen may never do that again which is sad. But hey, that's life. McFarlane fit the profile of a criminal not a young man doing a good deed.

The story reminded me of the one time my own racial profiling almost threw me into full blown cardiac arrest on a long stretch of highway between where I was and where I lived.

It happened on a Sunday afternoon over 20 years ago. I'd decided to skip college and live off love. My sister wasn't quite as foolish as I. So, she enrolled at a university about two and a half hours from where we lived.

I had just recently purchased a car which made me her back to school on Sunday evenings chauffeur.

On the way back home, I heard that sound and felt that sinking feeling. The one you get when you know one of your tires just died an untimely death. As I coasted to the side of the road, I became painfully aware that the sun was close to setting.

I hopped out of the car to look at the tire. What else could I do but look? I didn't even know whether I had a spare, a jack, a Louisville slugger...nothing. An 18-year-old woman standing beside I car that wasn't going anywhere.

I watched as several people drove past. Some slowed down slightly. I could see their brown faces looking at me...then turning their eyes back to the road and proceeding on to their destinations.

Several black men, women, families passed me on the highway that Sunday evening - not one of them stopped. Cell phones weren't even heard of in least not in my neck of the woods. So, I was truly alone. I decided to get back in my car and turn on my hazard lights. What good was standing out in the cool evening air going to do me? Besides I felt more protected in the car.

I started listening to a cassette that was in the deck and almost forgot what a jam I was in. Then I saw them!

Two white guys in a muddy jeep drove past me. I noticed a shotgun or rifle mounted in the back window of the jeep. The jeep was an older model (even for 1988) and was muddy as hell. Where in God's name had they been and more importantly, where were they going.

The jeep started to slow. My heart started to race. Oh no, they're stopping. Sweet Baby Jesus, they're backing up. Heaven help me they're getting out. Two tall, big burly white dudes in full hunting gear with a BIG gun mounted in the window of their muddy jeep.

Lord, will anyone ever find my body!!?

I composed myself and gripped my butt cheeks tight in an attempt to prevent the need for more than a tire change.

The guys made it to my car door and asked if I needed help. I can remember crying a bit. I was scared, alone and .....well just scared and alone.

I managed to point to my tire. They asked if I had a spare and a jack. I didn't know. I remembered some hard little doughnut looking tire under the carpeting in the trunk. I stepped out of the car and headed to the trunk. The guys got to work right away. Had that spare on and the torn up tire thrown in my trunk in all of ten to fifteen minutes at the most.

They asked me where I was headed. I told them. The two good samaritans then told me they would trail me into the city limits to make sure nothing went wrong with the spare. I was only able to drive about 45 miles per hour. I glanced up every now and then to see their jeep following closely behind me.

As we entered the city, the two lane highway stretched into four. The guys pulled along beside me....gave me a thumbs up and a wave and drove on into the night.

I never learned who they were, where they'd been or where they were going. All I know is I made a terrible assumption about those two hunters. The people I thought would help me...those I didn't feel threatened by at all...passed me like a was just a mirage.

The men I feared turned out to be my knights in shining armor. Hopefully, the mother of the lost child learned two things - #1 keep a closer eye on her kid and #2 never make assumptions.

Help doesn't have a color - only a heart and a conscience.