My wife and I recently went on a wonderful vacation to Northern Virginia and Central North Carolina to visit two of our children before and during Thanksgiving. I didn’t think about it at the time, but a lot of our experience and discussion during the trip related to race. Whether it was meeting friends, who happened to be of color, or observing the cultural differences of an area, it is something that we, as a family tend to notice and discuss.
My wife and I grew up in neighboring racially mixed communities that were quite different in tone. Our children also grew up with diversity. It was fascinating to hear my son-in-law describe his high school experiences in racially mixed Durham in comparison to ours in both Northern urban New Jersey and Broward County in Florida. We also discussed the recent election and the effect that it might have on the poor, the middle class, and people of color. Everything was open and uplifting until we returned home.
We arrived at Fort Lauderdale Airport slightly after noon on the Monday after Thanksgiving. We were being picked up by Francois, a high school classmate of our middle daughter. Francois’ parents are Haitian and although he was born in America, Francois is dark-skinned and looks like many of the Island people living in South Florida.
When my wife and I walked out of the terminal with our bags, we noticed that there was a surprising amount of traffic for the middle of a Monday, but assumed it was holiday travelers coming home en masse. Still, there seemed to be several Broward Sheriffs cars and officers doing more to create traffic than to keep it moving.
Francois drove up to where we were standing and stopped his car. He was opening his trunk as my wife headed toward him with a bag, while I picked up a couple more from the curb. When I got to the car, a rather disturbing thing happened. A Broward Sheriff Officer was asking Francois how he knew us. Neither my wife nor Francois seemed sure about what was happening, but I was. This officer was harassing a young man of color assuming that he was an Uber driver.
I had already determined that I would be spending the night in jail, since I was about to let this officer know how I felt about this invasion of our privacy. I must admit that the comedian in me also considered just saying “He’s Haitian”, which would likely result in Francois spending the night in jail instead. Before I could take either option, I noticed my wife explaining to the officer that Francois went to high school with our daughter.
At this point, the officer turned to my wife and said, brusquely, “I’m not talking to you. I want to hear it from him.” Before even seeing the look on my wife’s face, I was already sliding into a position between her and the officer as it was now evident that she would be spending the night in jail. Thankfully, Francois, who was still oblivious as to what this was all about, stammered out the same story that my wife was trying to say. The officer just walked away.
This entire episode took less than thirty seconds. Still, once we got into the car and on our way, the impact lasted considerably longer. First, I explained to Francois, that since he was young and ethnic, and we were old and white, it was reasonable to guess that he was an Uber driver. The officer’s odd question confirmed that he was looking for illegal pickups. But as we pulled apart the layers of the onion, we got more and more angry.
Francois is black, but is also a college graduate, a grad student, a pharmacy tech, and an EMT, who works multiple jobs as he attempts to get into medical school. As an EMT, he is a first-responder who works shoulder to shoulder with Broward Sheriff Officers at accident scenes. The second he took of his uniform, a fellow first-responder profiled him as law breaker. Additionally, the second that my wife chose to speak up on the behalf of this mud person, she lost all of her rights to reasonable treatment and was given the same lack of respect.
Digging a bit deeper, we discussed what crime that Francois must have been committing. I know that the County Commissioners get a fair amount of money from the Taxi Commission to allow them to operate at the airport, and Uber and similar services are a threat to that golden goose. Is it possible that Uber drivers are still being harassed even though they are now allowed to pick up at the airport after negotiating a fee to Broward County to allow them to practice commerce?
I don’t really care much about the few bucks of graft. What frosts me, is the use of the County Sheriff’s Department to act as their goon squad at taxpayer expense, all while gumming up the traffic at the airport, and ignoring crime that is a bigger threat to the community. The simple fact is that I can should be able to have anyone I want pick me up at the airport under pretty much any circumstances. More important, I did not see any white drivers being questioned regarding their relationship to their passengers.
We took Francois out to lunch to thank him for picking us up. I hope that we weren’t supposed to grease some other government agency for the privilege. We had a nice time and told Francois of our wonderful trip. Still, there was a bitter taste in my mouth. I don’t want to associate this with the election or otherwise blow it out of proportion. But, I was not happy to find that racism is alive and well in 2016. This will stick in my craw for a while.