Aging While Black
Why this matters
The following was written in 2013 but was never publicly published. In light of the events surrounding the killing of George Floyd and worldwide protests of unjustified police brutality, we're publishing this article now.
This race thing gets more complex every day.
Approaching 60 years old, I figured I’d check out, when my time came, with tubes in my nose in a hospital bed, not in a blazing hail of bullets from the Lower Merion Police Department.
As I was driving down the Main Line main drag Lancaster Avenue just outside of Philadelphia, I looked to my left and saw a dozen or so police cars around a bank. It was about 3 p.m. on February 12 – the same day the police were closing in on Chris Dorner in Big Bear Lake, California. “Must have been robbed,” I thought. I also had an old flash of what I was supposed to do. Growing up in black Los Angeles, we learned not to drive or be a passenger in a car while wearing a hat. In my day, the early ’70s, this was gangster wide brims, stingy brims, golf hats and watch caps – because each could signify membership in a specific gang. You were more likely to be a suspect, in the eyes of LAPD, if you wore one of these hats.
Today, at 57 years old on a 40-degree day, I was wearing a ski cap with a frankly femme puffy ball on the top. No gang would care to associate itself with the cap I was wearing. I had a slight cold, and the heat in the car had not quite kicked fully in, so I violated my own overcautious and presumably no-longer-needed rule. My first thought, however, was to take the cap off. The L.A. training. I grew up with the crips, bloods and LAPD, and today Chris Dorner was in the news, so my defenses and survival skills were on high alert. My second thought, in a split second, was “you’re an old man, and those days are over for you.” My final thought was “well, if you take it off now, and they see you, that will look suspicious, too.” So, I left it on.
I went back to listening to my old-school soul music on SiriusXM radio, a standard feature of my suburban-middle-class, just-washed Ford Fusion Hybrid. I was heading back to the Wharton School to teach a class, as I had done for 27 years. I had just met my son at the office of a specialist checking out a problem he’d been having with his arm. That went well, so I was in a relatively good mood. I thought briefly about the way Lancaster Avenue transitioned from the Main Line suburbs to gritty West Philadelphia and how my friend Eli Anderson could do an ethnographic study of that route as he had done of the similarly transition-rich Germantown Avenue. I had also just had a meeting that morning with my African American colleagues on the issue of there being no deans of color at Penn during the nine years our president had been in office. So, new issues of race were at least in the recesses of my mind.
I made it about a block past the bank, and I was stopped in traffic behind a black BMW. The light changed and the cars to my right were moving, but the BMW sat in front of me chatting with what I noticed was an unmarked car packed with four uniformed cops. I waited a reasonable amount of time, and the BMW driver was still jabbering. I delivered a courtesy honk – because I needed to get to class. He moved on, and I followed. Then it began.
I looked in my rearview mirror and saw the unmarked car making a U-turn after I moved about a block. They hit the siren and the lights, and they were right behind me. As I began to pull over, I realized maybe I should have taken off my puffy-ball cap. Being almost 60 had not removed me from the ranks of suspects. I began my review of survival. My anti-Skip Gates/Trayvon Martin calculation was underway. My mind went to survival, as we had done so many times in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles. The unmarked car behind me stopped two car lengths back as I pulled over. Another car emerged and drove against traffic two car lengths in front of me. “Damn,” I thought to myself. “I thought I was too old for this.” I went beyond the south L.A. Richard Pryor training. Not mere hands on the dashboard, I put both hands flat, fingers spread on the windshield. I saw a dozen or so weapons at the ready on me and bulletproof vests in place as I did so. I knew this would be beyond license and registration. For me, I knew my job at this moment was to stay alive. Don’t provide any excuse to die. I awaited instructions. Surreally, the old school soul was playing, but I could not reach to turn it off.
“Put both of your hands out of the window.” I had to roll it down. Should I ask permission to push the button? I just did that slow and with hand signals. The officer in charge was still two car lengths back.
“Now turn the car off and throw the keys out.” Who knew the hybrid was still running?
“Exit the vehicle. Walk backward toward me with your hands behind your back.” This was my confirmation that this was no mere license and registration stop. This was the moment too when I flashed a thought: Would my white Wharton colleagues be subjected to this? In retrospect, I think too about Malcolm’s admonition regarding a black man with a PhD, just in case I had gotten too big for my britches.
This was when I was snapped out of the denial stage of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
The cuffs were extraordinarily tight. Too much knowledge clicked in my head that I was now, constitutionally, under arrest. I had a sense that the cops were a bit more relaxed now that their dozen guns would not be confronted with the superhuman strength of an angel-dusted middle-aged man. I was walked to the curb by at least two officers. I knew this was where the violence could occur, and I was as submissive and cooperative as I could be. I was conscious of protecting my head and my face.
“We will tell you why we are holding you in a moment.” I knew why, but submission dictated saying nothing. We got to the curb. One officer went back to the vehicle. I felt another close by with a weapon at the ready. To the officer closest to me, I turned and said, “I am a member of the bar and a professor at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.” The sentence construction and the enunciation were stellar. I wanted him to think me “articulate.” He had received my message. He did an immediate translation of having the wrong guy. As he got it, a pod of officers were searching the trunk of my car after they opened it with weapons drawn. They found tennis balls. Not a sack of cash. Not an accomplice.
The time was right, apparently to tell me, “You match the description provided by the teller of the person that just robbed the bank up the street. Black man, black car, black jacket, beard and black hat.” I was told, as I knew, I would be detained until the teller drove by and got a look at me. This could still play out badly, I thought.
It was cold. I was sympathetically invited to sit in the unmarked car while they waited. I declined, saying “I’m embarrassed enough here on the street,” as I noticed for the first moment dozens of suburban citizens staring at the bank robber.
Luckily, multiple radios began to go off with the declaration that I was not their man. Apologies began and the handcuffs were taken off. Now, resurrected, I walked over to the biggest pod of cops. I’m not really sure of my first comment, but I looked at my tailored sports jacket with my name stitched inside by Ernesto and I asked for everyone’s business card. No one had one. “You’re conducting business without cards? I want you all to have mine.” I began to hand out my Wharton School card. I then asked, “Who is going to write me a note for the class that I am now late to?” They laughed and continued profuse apologies all around.
I then asked, “Look at me, does my old ass look like a bank robber?” I was given the description again. “Yeah, but was he described as a grandfather?” On a roll now, “Well, give me one piece of good news for what has become a bad day. Tell me that the teller said he was twenty-five and, to you, I look 25.” I got a laugh. One jokingly said 29. I wasn’t joking. I was probing.
Here I was in the anger phase.
I got the ID of the supervising officer, asked where my keys were, and asked if I got a pass on any traffic violations I might commit on the Main Line going forward. Gallows humor was alive and well.
I got in the car and called my lawyer friends who specialize in police cases. Their conclusion? If no one threw you on the ground or called you nigger, or the teller description wasn’t, in fact, that of a white woman, just chalk it up as another day for a black man in America. My old Stanford University football teammate Lacey Atkinson said more often than anyone: “You’ll be a nigger until you get bigger and then you’ll be my bigger nigger.”
What Malcolm said.
The postscript is that, while I was traveling, my wife texted me a link to a photo and description of the apparent serial bank robber: http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2013/02/16/fbi-searching-for-philadelphia-area-serial-bank-robber/.
In my mind, he is the youthful guy that I still am. He has a goatee with no gray and a brow with no wrinkle. Bagless eyes. But a black man, with a black hat, with a beard and with black glasses. This was the catalyst for my bargaining and depression phases.
I spoke with my college and lifelong buddy Charles Ogletree, who had counseled Skip Gates on his incident. We had protested together decades ago over the broad dragnet that was cast for the “Zebra” killer in the San Francisco Bay area in 1973. That event was so impactful that I still display the handbill about that protest in my office at the University of Pennsylvania. Put a hat on Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter. Do the same to Morgan Freeman. Serve up Denzel Washington in his Malcolm X roles. And we, and a wide range of others, become viable suspects. “Until this guy is caught,” another buddy told me, “you are Richard Kimball, and he’s the one-armed man.”
On this day, approaching 60 years old, I was just cold. For those who ask in various ways, "why don't you just let it go?" This is why. The old South Central in me said take the cap off. The “we have made progress” in me said stay warm. This is complex. But this is the crux of the issue that many don't comprehend. We still have a long way to go. Did I need to be arrested? Would a request for my license and identification have sufficed rather than the cuffing and immediate presence of force? I am forced to remain vigilant. My life may depend upon it. I must deliver, and have delivered, the same lesson to my children: Seek progress, and respect the progress that has been made, but remain vigilant.
I received a phone call from a captain at Lower Merion. More apologies. In my bargain, I wanted more. I wanted at least a letter. I wanted something to show if I was confronted along the way with a cellphone photo of my moment in cuffs.
“It sounds like you endured a pretty standard felony stop in Pennsylvania. By the book,” the captain?? OR one of my friends?? said.
Most consistent, though, brothers who know me well would do some version of look at the photo and then look at me and say some version of “Ken, what’d you do with the money?” It was this consistent reaction that brought me around to acceptance. Albeit a reluctant acceptance.
In this instance, I was both a beneficiary of history and a victim. The benefit was knowing how to react in the setting. The victim was my confidence that there was dramatic racial harm in the moment rather than a mere botched cross-racial identification. I remain pissed. I remain suspicious that I could have been treated more respectfully. The truth is, a written apology would not undo the moment, either.
One of my heroes, Mary Frances Berry, had occasion to say to a group of us recently, “My civil rights movement was not about making sure one black person got a high position, even president.” My civil rights movement is about these next steps. Whether it be to appoint deans of color or to be more cautious of brothers we scoop up in dragnets as more understand about the New Jim Crow or the Trayvon Martin incidents. But there exist these more refined issues that prevent us from being who we should be.
Kenneth L. Shropshire is CEO of the Global Sport Institute and the Adidas Distinguished Professor of Global Sport at Arizona State University. He recently closed out a thirty-year career as an endowed full professor at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, where he was also Director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, Professor of Africana Studies, and Academic Director of Wharton’s sports-focused executive education programs. He now holds the title of Wharton Professor Emeritus and is the author of 10 books.