When I left for the night from my first newspaper editing job, I had to be careful. It was usually after midnight, in the mid-1980s, when things were still a little rough in the New York City metro area.
I drove my undependable, rattling Volkswagen Jetta through rough neighborhoods and on a stretch of Interstate 95 that could get a little dicey with drunken drivers.
Although I was wary of many things, I was not wary of police officers. I found out one night that for a black reporter who sometimes covered the late cops shift, his worries were the opposite of mine. If I saw a cop, I might relax. If he saw one, he tensed because the odds were good that he was going to get pulled over.
The newspaper was in Stamford, Conn., and although it might be hard to believe for people who know the “Gold Coast” city of today, in those days, downtown was a little sketchy. South Norwalk, where the black reporter lived, was a little sketchy as well, and he had to cross the Wonder bread-white town of Darien to get there.
One night, before he left work, he disclosed that he would often get pulled over as he crossed Darien. When that would happen, he would wait behind the steering wheel, make no sudden moves and show that he was a reporter at The Advocate, which was enough to convince the police to send him on his way. One night, he was pulled over twice in the tiny town.
I lived in Bridgeport, which sometimes involved an unnerving ride home in the wee hours of the morning for other reasons. The city itself was dangerous, but I-95 was a highway of horror where I would see things like a speeding pickup truck with its bed fully engulfed by flames.
So, yeah, I was happy to see a cop. Perhaps it was naïve of me, but I did not realize that this reporter had another layer of anxiety because of the very people I looked to as protectors.
Maybe I was surprised because we were in a somewhat progressive area, and we all seemed to be moving past racism. Or so it seemed at that moment in the mid-’80s. Soon after, New York City would erupt with a string of racial incidents culminating in the Central Park Five case, in which five black teenagers were wrongfully convicted of raping and beating a jogger.
In Los Angeles, the Rodney King beating case put the spotlight on police abuse and ushered in the age of video evidence. With that, all of America could see what people of color had been saying about their treatment at the hands of police, the latest being the excruciatingly long eight minutes and forty-six seconds during which a Minneapolis policeman used his knee to crush
George Floyd’s neck as blithely as if he were squishing a bug.
Of course, not all police officers do this. But so many black Americans share these experiences that parents consider it their duty to have “the talk” with their sons. This is not the birds and the bees talk that white parents are having with their boys — this is the talk about how to behave if they are pulled over by a police officer.
And it does not matter what level of success the family might have attained or what neighborhood they live in. George Nichols knows that. He is the president of The American College of Financial Services, a position he took after a highly successful career in many fields, including a couple of decades as a top-level New York Life executive.
Nichols is featured in an article in this month’s magazine. He describes his experience of being black in a predominantly white world. He is a friendly, warm guy who is hard not to like. But he lives each day with the understanding that he represents a threat to people in his environment who do not know him.
The article describes the precautions Nichols takes to make sure he does not run into trouble while taking a fitness walk around his upscale neighborhood. He is concerned that an encounter gone wrong with police or an armed neighbor might get him killed. Do you know what I worry about during my walks? Whether my plantar fasciitis will act up and cause me foot pain.
Why am I writing about this? I could be discussing how the life insurance and financial services industry can help break the cycle of inequality — and that is true and vitally important. As Nichols is quoted as saying in the article, these industries can help build the habits and wealth that can elevate generations of black Americans — and in so doing lift all of America.
I am talking about this because a basic understanding has to come first.
I used to chafe at the term “white privilege.” I felt anything but privileged in my life as the only child brought up by a single parent in an era when that was unusual. My first-generation Irish mother worked hard to move up the ranks in a corporation, even though she hadn’t even graduated from high school. As for me, I had to overcome hearing and vision impairments.
Yet two generations after my grandparents arrived from Ireland and Italy, I graduated from college, have had a respectable career and feel comfortably, thoroughly American. But here is George Nichols, who by any measure has had remarkable success in his life, and yet he fears for his life just walking around his neighborhood.
I was not a model teenager by any means, and I had my share of run-ins with the law. I was never roughed up or arrested, even though I recall being a bit obnoxious on an occasion or two. When I told one of these stories to a close friend who is Puerto Rican and grew up in the Bronx, her eyes widened and she said, “That’s white privilege.” I had thought of these incidents as young foolishness, but I realized that there was no way a kid of color would have made it out of those situations without an injury or a criminal record or both.
We can talk about change all we like, secure in the knowledge that we are not the racists, that we are not the problem.
But as well intentioned as many of us are, we can’t begin to institute real change until we understand that we have two Americas, and most white people live in the one that offers the promises and dreams laid out by our slave-owning forefathers. Blacks live in the America that did not acknowledge them in the Constitution and did not even recognize them as citizens until 1868 with the 14th Amendment.
The strands of history are in our hands. What will we make of them?