Today was the day. My number had been selected and I was to report for jury duty. While I wasn’t excited, I realize it is my civic duty and it is important. I have also learned, from past experiences, that it is a good idea to bring something to read because selecting a jury can take quite some time. So I chose to bring Excellence Through Equity by Alan M. Blankstein and Pedro Noguera. My book selection would prove to be an omen of sorts.
The book was given to me as part of a professional development opportunity that I am being provided. If I was going to have to sit for several hours, I might as well make the best use of my time by completing some assigned reading. The book is excellent and I look forward to finishing it as the first few chapters have already taught me much.
But the most important lesson I learned that day didn’t come from pages I read inside the courtroom. No, the most important lesson came before I even stepped foot in the courthouse. It came while waiting out in the cold with a hundred or so potential jurors. We were to show up by 8:30 am, but most of us arrived before then and thus we had to wait outside until we were allowed to enter the building.
Many folks knew each other and began engaging in small talk and lighthearted banter. I recognized some folks but basically just kept to myself. I did feel as if I recognized the person directly in front of me, but I wasn’t quite sure. So I didn’t say anything. As the time to enter grew near, I began to hear people joke about ways they could get dismissed. And then I heard the statement that I myself have spoken before.
The best way to get dismissed from jury duty is to say that you always believe what a cop says is the truth.
As I mentioned, I am certain I have made this remark before and had never thought a thing of it. I reiterate this because I in no way made any judgment about the person/people that made this remark.
But, shortly after the remark was made I had an epiphany.
At that moment. For the first time. I realized how easy it was/is for me to joke about having blind belief. Because I am white. And I have never been profiled or treated unfairly by the police because of my race. And while I wasn’t keeping a tally, I am fairly certain that everyone that made that remark or laughed at the joke was white too. Once again, I include myself in that group. Or at least I did until that day.
And the person waiting in line in front of me? She happened to turn around and we exchanged greetings.
It was none other than our mayor. She was the first African American elected mayor of our small town. A town that experienced much racial unrest in the ’60s. A town that made national headlines for the severity of the race riots that it endured. A town that finally integrated its schools by the ’70s.
Our mayor was in fact one of the first African American students to help integrate the previously all-white high school. Since she was standing directly in front of me, I couldn’t help but wonder what she felt about everything that was being said. More specifically, I wonder how she felt about folks saying they could get out of jury duty by blinding accepting police testimony as truth. She never said a word. But I would’ve loved to have known what she was thinking.
Furthermore, I couldn’t help but think of recent events in the news in which young black men had been treated unfairly and sometimes killed simply for being black. Images of Ferguson and Trayvon Martin came to mind.
When the judge asked us, the potential jurors, if we would always believe the testimony of police officers to be the truth, I did not stand. I was not alone. And I am not judging those that did stand. I know numerous police officers who are amazing individuals that have earned my complete trust.
But for me to stand and say that I would always take the testimony of a police officer to be the truth. I couldn’t do it. I try to judge each person based on what I know and what I learn and what I hear about them. Not based on their position, or race or whatever.
Just last week I had a question concerning the law. I decided to call the person that I trusted most with this matter. He immediately stopped what he was doing and came to give me advice. When I called the station I didn’t ask for a police officer. I asked for him. By the way, he is African-American.
A couple days ago my friend and colleague, that I am honored to work alongside every day, was a few minutes late getting to school. He was late because he was pulled over by the police. He was pulled over because the officer believed that his brake lights were out.
But it turned out that they weren’t. It just so happened that the lights on my friend’s car are unique. He was able to prove this to the officer by showing him the car’s owner’s manual. It didn’t end there. The officer proceeded to ask my friend if he had any drugs, alcohol, or weapons in the car. My friend is black.
Last week I was justifiably pulled over for talking on a handheld phone while driving. It was dangerous and I have to admit, my full attention was not on the road. I was in the wrong. No doubt about it. The officer didn’t ask me if I had any drugs, alcohol or weapons in the car. I am white.
Tomorrow I am going to wake up white and my colleague will wake up black. I will not ever know what it is like to see the world through his lens and he will not ever know what it is like to see the world through mine. But we will talk. And we will share our stories. And hopefully, through our honest and open discussions, we learn more about what it is like to be white and what it is like to be black.
One thing I know for certain. If ever in a court of law, I would stand for him and he would stand for me. Not because I am white and not because he is black. But because we talk and we listen and we know each other.
That is why.