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Stephen Gottlieb: The Stress Of Race

There’s a moment when we first experience race. As a kid, I remember reading something about my team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, that described a player, not a star, but a good ballplayer, in a hotel room, trying to rub the black off his skin. That image was deeply disturbing. Even as a kid I understood or maybe what I read explained the deep hurt that racism inflicts.

I tried to find the story and found a story about Charles Thomas, a Black teammate and lifelong friend of Branch Rickey when they both played for Notre Dame. It seemed different from what I remembered. My old memory may have merged with the Charles Thomas-Branch Rickey story but I suspect it was a common experience, one that made some of the first African-American fortunes in cosmetics and hair straighteners.

Risks in dealing with cops and white people are a constant fact of Black life. The Warren Court, that’s right, the Warren Court decided cops could stop and frisk people without what the constitution requires for a seizure or arrest. That meant all hell could and did break loose. Almost anything an African-American did or does can look suspicious to a cop – putting keys in one’s door, a kid running when an officer appears (actually quite a reasonable response), driving a nice car, or reaching for something in the car (even in response to a request from a cop), jogging in a white community, looking “furtive” (whatever that means) or standing together on a street corner – ambiguous actions that wouldn’t look troubling when whites do it, but combined with common prejudices become lethal suspicions. Blacks are left trying to prove discrimination, that authorities wouldn’t do that to whites. Good luck. Even when African-Americans prove discrimination, the Supreme Court says so what!

The Civil Rights Movement and the riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King scared whites. Blacks were lynched for over a century, whole Black communities were burned to the ground and the people in them killed as in the notorious Tulsa massacre. Not to mention the Klan’s reign of terror on Blacks and their supporters before and during the Civil Rights Movement. But once whites were scared, everything else disappeared.

We don’t know from our own experience that African-Americans are regularly pulled over without reason. Most assume that cops have good reason to pull someone over. As a lawyer who worked in and for the Black community, I knew that was nonsense. But if you’re not there when it happens, how would you know? When a cop shoots a Black, how would a white know what happened unless someone takes a video from beginning to end? Are you going to believe a cop or an African-American? Judges will tell you that cops do not have a good reputation for honesty. And cops have told many of us in the law straight out that they violate the law and lie about it. It’s obvious when they repeatedly use stories that already passed judicial muster. They study the decisions and learn what to say. As one judge told me, we don’t know when they’re lying.

So just being Black on the street in America can be very stressful. No wonder, and how sad, that those young men were trying to rub the color off their skin, and that it became important to say that black is, in fact, beautiful.

Steve Gottlieb’s latest book is Unfit for Democracy: The Roberts Court and The Breakdown of American Politics. He is the Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Albany Law School, served on the New York Civil Liberties Union board, on the New York Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, and as a US Peace Corps Volunteer in Iran.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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