Monday, January 15, 2007

Dreaming in Black and White

I had a dream. I don’t usually remember my dreams, but today was different. Normally I would have been on my way to work before the dream even occurred, but I was home today due to the death of my brother who passed on Saturday.

In my dream, my wife and I were coming home when two new neighboring families from across the street stopped by to greet us. In a strange twist, they were bringing us breakfast, bacon and eggs, on odd banana shaped platters, as a sort house-warming gift. They were ones moving into the neighborhood, but we were the ones being greeted. Oh well, I never said my dreams made sense.

One of the families was of mixed race and as I glanced across the street at their new home, I noticed a racial epithet spray-painted on their garage door. I explained that we had our share of red-necked hillbillies around here, but they were not typical of local attitudes.

About that time, the dream was interrupted by my awakening. It wasn’t until several minutes later when it occurred to me that today, Janurary 15th, is Martin Luther King day. He also had a dream about racial struggles, and as I flipped on the TV to catch the early morning news, I saw parts of his famous speech being shown in remembrance. Certainly we have made great strides since those days, but I wonder if the obstacles to true equality will ever truly be overcome.

Last week, I had a one-on-one conversation with an older Black man who works at the same utility where I do. He had forgotten his identification badge the day before and was stopped by our security officers at the gate. This type of incident is not uncommon. Many employees keep their badges in their vehicles when off duty. If circumstances cause someone to change their daily routine, proper ID is sometimes left behind. Past practice has been to ask the employee his name and who he works for. The security guard will then ask him or her to pull off to the side until they can call the supervisor to get clearance for entry.

Bill pulled off and waited in his vehicle. Some time had elapsed when he was approached by security and asked to provide a driver’s license. Bill was never someone who allowed himself to be pushed around, and having never been asked for a driver’s license under similar circumstances in the past, he refused to comply. He said he reasoned there was personal information on his driver’s license that security guards did not need to see.

After the head of security got involved and several other rather heated exchanges took place, Bill was eventually allowed to enter the plant and began his shift. After a couple of hours on duty, he was pulled off the job by management and driven about 15 miles north to a hospital where he had to provide a urine sample for a drug test. The security head said Bill’s behavior was suspicious. That evening, he was required to attend a fact-finding hearing which is typically done when the company is preparing to discipline someone.

I assume the drug test was negative, and now Bill is anxiously awaiting to hear his fate. He is of retirement age and could find his pension in jeopardy depending on how badly the company wants to hurt him. He has had previous encounters with the head of security, a man whose own behavior has been questioned by many. In this and the other cases, some finger-pointing could be directed at both sides. People often assume the worst about their adversaries, and benign problems escalate into major confrontations.

Bill told me he didn’t want to play the race card, but he felt he was singled out because of his skin color. He said the white guys are waved through security routinely while he is often stopped for closer inspection. It may be true. I don’t know. We often enter the gate in darkness with a flood light pointed at our car windows. Employees hold their picture ID badges up to the window and the guard should theoretically compare the face in the picture to the one behind the wheel. It could be argued that a Black man’s face would be more difficult to see in the darkness. My impression is that most guards are not looking closely in most cases. If you possess what appears to be a company ID, they will normally wave you through.

So, now we have a major incident before us. If Bill is disciplined, he will probably claim it is racially motivated. Looking at the situation from my perspective, it should have been handled routinely without incident. If security was unable to contact Bill’s supervisor for clearance, they should have given him a courteous explanation of why they needed another form of identification. I know Bill can be belligerent when he feels he is being treated unfairly, but a good security officer should be trained to deal with those situations without over-reacting. Forcing Bill to take a drug test was pure harassment, a tactic often used by this company indiscriminately without justification.

Yes, we have come a long way since Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his dream speech in 1963, but that tension between the races still exists. Was this particular incident racially motivated? I don’t know. The point is, it should never have happened. It became a racial incident because it was allowed to. A little courtesy and understanding can go a long way for people of all races.

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