Ronald’s dad often told him when he was growing up that, “you can’t do what they do.” He meant that as a black boy, he could not do what he saw the white boys in his neighborhood doing, or behave in the same manner they did, or speak as they did. It would get him in trouble. Individual freedom of action and expression are different for different groups of people in America.
We told our daughters the same thing as they were growing up, especially when they moved from their Northeastern urban high school with a socio-economically diverse population that was about fifty percent ethnic minority to the Southeastern arts conservatory with a predominately affluent, white student population and almost all white faculty.
I thought about that expression, you can’t do what they do, this week as Ronald and I watched a documentary on Pearl Harbor on the History Channel. As Americans prepared to enter the war, Japanese Americans were being rounded up and placed in internment camps. True to the racist slant of the times, it was believed they might be more loyal to their country of origin than to the country they lived in, many for generations. Most were U.S. citizens. Most had never even visited Japan. Why didn’t the government sanction the internment of all Americans of German or Italian heredity?
When my father was drafted and ordered to report to duty, he changed his first name from Francesco to Francis. His brothers, except for Rocco, did the same. Were they worried they didn’t sound American enough? American citizens of ethnic minority heredity, you can’t do what they do.
Herman Cain announced this past week that he was suspending his campaign to run for president. I predicted his demise back in my October 23rd blog, Am I My Brother’s Keeper? So I wasn’t surprised when the allegations of sexual misconduct arose in the press. Herman, you can’t do what they do.
A few weeks ago an airline pilot managed to lock himself in the bathroom of the plane. He asked a passenger to go to the cockpit with a special password to let the co-pilot know of his plight. The co-pilot considered the pilot’s disappearance and the passenger’s thick accent to be indicative that the plane was under terrorist attack. It precipitated an emergency landing. If the passenger had spoken with an American dialect, would everyone have had a good laugh and the plane made its ETA without a blip? Foreign sounding passenger, you can’t do what they do.
A young interracial couple was banned from the woman’s church of worship in rural Kentucky a couple of weeks ago. After all the attention in the media, the pastor was replaced and the church rescinded its vote. Interracial couple wishing to worship, you can’t do what they do.
President Obama, did your mother ever tell you, you can’t do what they do? If she didn’t, it’s okay, she might not have known or understood it. I know it because I have witnessed it for thirty-six years. I’m sensitized to it. If you aren’t white, if you aren’t affluent, if you don’t view the world through the “white” American cultural context, you can’t do what they do.
(Excerpt from Chapter 8, Watch Our Show, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
In the spring of 2006 I asked Ronald to drive to Albany for the day. I wanted him to go to the New York State Retirement Office and get the numbers worked up for his pension. He did not trust the administration at the Syracuse Fire Department to do it properly. He agreed to at least listen to what the retirement office had to say, still telling me he figured he would put in three more years. He worried the number of black firefighters was dropping – most of the black men who came on with him in the class of 1981 had retired at twenty years or they had signed off earlier, losing full pension rights. More than a few had told him they retired early or left because they could not take the daily abuse: the constant questioning from white firefighters about their competence; the racist jokes; the suspiciously numerous disciplinary write-ups from white superiors. Ronald knew what they were talking about. “You can’t do what they do,” his dad had told him about the white boys when they moved to the eastside, and it was true as an adult, too.
One of the new black recruits came to him for advice. His lieutenant had given him poor probation evaluations. One of his station mates had lied when he had asked him a question about calculating oxygen pressure. When his lieutenant asked him for the calculation and he responded using the answer given to him by his station mate, he was evaluated poorly again. His lieutenant was pressuring him to sign off and resign before his probation ended. The stress had caused him to become violent when he and his girlfriend had gotten into an argument, and now he feared the relationship might end as well.
Ronald counseled him not to take it out on his girlfriend, who, he told him, could not understand what he went through at the job. He told him he would help him learn what he needed to know. He would go downtown to the Fire Department Offices on his behalf. He told him he could get through it if he wanted to and that he was not on his own. He said, “Every white firefighter comes to work every day and gets to enjoy being a firefighter. They don’t want that for us. They want us to hate coming here. We have a right to enjoy firefighting as much as they do.”
The next day Ronald talked to one of the district chiefs and told him that something wasn’t right with the evaluations of the young recruit. He told him he had worked with him on overtime duty, and he thought he did a fine job and wanted to do well. He talked to the black firefighters’ group FOCUS (Firefighters of Color United in Syracuse) that he helped found years before, and told the group officers they ought to intervene. Still the young recruit signed off and resigned a week later.
“They want us off the force,” he said, relating the story to me. “They want it to look like we can’t perform the job – a self-fulfilling prophecy. They can’t wait to catch us failing, and they find ways to make it happen.”
The NYS retirement officer pushed a paper across the desk. It contained Ronald’s pension details. I watched Ronald’s eyes light up.
He picked up the pen the officer laid next to the paper and signed it. He would retire on June 30, 2006.