Editorials

Now this is how you handle a 'while-black' situation

A mariachi band performs near the former office of New York attorney Aaron Schlossberg earlier this month.
A mariachi band performs near the former office of New York attorney Aaron Schlossberg earlier this month. AP photo

Michael Hayes, a black real estate investor in Memphis, Tenn., was trying to inspect a house he was considering investing in when a white woman, believing him out of place in her neighborhood, called the police. It’s one of the most recent examples of white people calling the police on black people doing everyday things.

What happened next should encourage us all. The police showed up, inquired about the incident — and took Hayes’s side after learning all the facts. They did not escalate an already-tense situation. They did not immediately pull out handcuffs, a Taser or a gun. They did their job, Hayes was allowed to do his, the woman was told to leave him alone — and those cops helped re-establish a little bit of trust between the police and the communities they’ve been tasked with serving. It’s the kind of resolution we’d like to see more of during times that feel more divisive than they have in a generation. Fortunately, that’s not the only recent example of Americans using fraught situations to advocate for long-term good.

The “while black” stories — though not new to those who were quietly enduring them long before video and camera phones became ubiquitous and brought them to the attention of the wider public — gained national traction when a Starbucks manager called 911 because two young black men were quietly sitting down in a Philadelphia Starbucks. Instead of suing, those two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, settled for $1 each and asked the city to fund $200,000 for a grant program for high school students who want to become entrepreneurs. They turned a racial flashpoint they could have simply cashed in — or worsened — into opportunities that might change the lives of young people they don’t even know. Starbucks is taking it further, shutting down its stores on Tuesday for a corporation-wide training on issues of diversity that may become a standard for others.

In Oakland, a white woman called the police because two black men were using a charcoal grill in an area of a public park she said didn’t allow such grills, even though residents frequently did so without incident. The community responded by having a large cookout in the park, dancing and playing music and skipping rope in a show of solidarity instead of despair.

In New York, an attorney named Aaron Schlossberg was caught on video nastily speaking to a few people speaking Spanish in a restaurant. He threatened to call ICE, assuming they were in the U.S. illegally.

“They have the balls to come here and live off of my money I pay for their welfare,” he complained. “The least they could do is speak English.”

The community responded by rallying around those being bullied, not the bully, which eventually led to an impromptu Latin-theme party — complete with free tacos, a mariachi band and dancing to Spanish-themed songs — outside Schlossberg’s home.

It’s a creative way to stand up against bigotry. For too long, the marginalized have been forced into the hushed corners of society when they’ve been unfairly put upon by the privileged. Those days are coming to an end, and that change can’t happen fast enough. We shouldn’t be shamed for being powerless, but rather ashamed for abusing the power we’ve been privileged to have been granted.

It’s true that too many ugly or potentially dangerous incidents have horrific resolutions, the kind that lead to more division rather than deeper healing. But more Americans, those wearing badges and not, caught in untenable situations are showing us a better way. That’s reason for hope.

ibailey@charlotteobserver.com
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