By Patrick Dele Cole
The present racial war in the United States reminded me of my first visit to that country. There was really fear of Blacks as a race. Blacks were afraid. The fear was palpable. I arrived in the United States and was taken to the house of a faculty member. The professor was on sabbatical and had given the keys to his beautiful house to the Dean for me to stay until I found my own accommodation. The house was full of security gadgets and alarms everywhere.
The security systems were tied up and hooked up to the local police station. One day, I was in the kitchen trying to wash plates and I didn’t know that there was an alarm rigged up to the sink in the kitchen. I mistakenly triggered the alarm. Before I knew it, some six policemen had surrounded the house. Here was this Nigger from Nigeria who knew nobody and his first contact with the dreaded police of Philadelphia. I knew no one in Philadelphia yet I was living in this beautiful big house. There was a loud knock at the door.
Meanwhile, the alarm gadget that was triggered was like a small phone, but it was making so much noise; I unplugged it and threw it into the freezer. The police were trying to get into the house. I opened the door. The police men pointed a gun at me and screamed: “Put your hands up. Don’t move”. I looked at them and said “why?”. “Put your hands up; don’t move,” they repeated. I said: “Why should I put my hands up. Who called you, why are you shouting at me? I live in this house”. I think my accent would or may have thrown them. I had also, in any case, put my hands up. One police man walked up to me, frisked me down and asked for my name. When I told him, he asked where Prof. McClellan – the owner of the house, who was white- was. I told him the professor was on sabbatical leave and had allowed me to stay in his house.
Meanwhile, the other policemen rushed passed me to search the rest of the house. On their return, after finding no one else, they started to interrogate me. They thought I was a burglar who had broken into the house with my gang, looking for valuables, in the house. They were still suspicious of me, wondering how come a Black man was teaching at an Ivy League university? This was in 1970!! Luckily, I had Prof. McClelland’s letter allowing me to stay in the house, and my letter of appointment was in the study. On seeing these, the Police departed.
It was after they left, that I was consumed by fear of my narrow escape. I was shaking for hours. The more I thought of it, the more scared I was. I had left King’s College, Cambridge, on a leave of absence. Forty eight hours after the incident I was back in Cambridge. The dean at the University of Pennsylvania was on the phone; so was Prof. McClelland: the courses I was to teach had been announced and many students have signed up for the courses. Students never believed that the university had any intention to give courses in African history and politics as part of a Black Studies Programme. The Provost of King’s College also intervened. I went back to Philadelphia.
I went through the usual discrimination when looking for an apartment. I would phone up in answer to advertisements. When I got there and they saw I was Black, the estate agent would tell me the apartment had just been let. In the end, a White colleague was able to get me an apartment in Centre City in the name of the university, just off Rittenhouse Square, the plushest, high brow area in town. It was one of the best squares in the whole of the United States; the home of many Philadelphia “aristocrats” with old money and long history. Every evening on my way back from the university after studying, coming home about 10pm- 12mid night, I would be stopped almost inevitably by the police. I had no car, so I was walking home. The police would stop me. The two policemen would come out of the car, one would be standing right behind me and the other would ask for any form of identification: “What’s your name, where are you from, what are you doing here. Show me some ID please”. I would show them my identity card of the University of Pennsylvania. The first time I showed the ID of the University of Pennsylvania, the two policemen started to laugh, saying: “We have this nigger who is telling us that he is a professor at the Pennsylvania University”. They would radio their dispatch officer who would check with the University of Pennsylvania Police, asking for confirmation. While all this was going on, the officer behind me had his hand on his gun. When confirmation came, I was handed back my ID and told that they had a report of a burglar around and I fitted the description. No apologies: they would enter their patrol car and drive off: This happened to me two or three times every week and nearly at the same spot.
The general population of the United States comprises the following – 62% White, 13% Black, 17% Hispanic (although in some classifications the Hispanics are classified as White: if so, then the population is 79% White). Yet in the prison population these races are disproportionately represented: 64% of prisoners are Black and Hispanic of a total prison population of 1.6 million. Blacks have a 1 in 3 chance of being in prison; 1 in 9 Black children have one parent in jail. One in 13 Blacks cannot vote because they have a criminal record. In 2015 the police killed 258 Black people. This year as at June, they had killed 135 Blacks.
This is why many Black s today see the United States as a vast prison in which they are likely to die from police bullets or imprisoned because of a racially biased criminal justice system.
The Blacks are now fighting back through protest movements such as “Black Lives Matter” and have even gone the extra mile of protecting themselves against police such that they have begun killing policemen. This move has caused uproar as state after state, Governors and even President Barack Obama have come out to condemn Blacks, who in protecting themselves, kill law enforcement officers. The action of Blacks was predicated on well documented cases of police killing Black people even after they had surrendered, or after being stopped for minor offences like a broken rear light or that a Black man is seen at a “place” he should not be, that is, in expensive or rich neighbourhood, etc.
Every Black household spends time teaching their children, especially teenagers, how to behave when stopped or approached by the police: the Blacks’ call it “the talk”. There is little chance that an officer who shoots a Black man is likely to be punished: the law, as now interpreted, states that the police is not guilty if he believes that in the presence of a Black man he, the policeman, merely believes his own life is threatened.
Paradoxically, the US and other Western countries believe that they are setting up pluralistic, non-discrimatory societies. The Rio Olympics will again show case Black prowess in athletics, basketball, football and rugby.
In music and other entertainment, Black people would perform as usual – but again here, the artists are Black but the money from their performances and other aspects of the industry is White. It is indeed interesting that in the last few weeks we saw in the European league football games a new definition of migration: because the game was really the all Africa Games played in Europe whether it is the semi finals between Germany and Italy or between Germany and France or the finals between France and Spain, it was no more than Africans playing in Europe. Most of the teams had Africans who represent individual countries in Europe. Welcome to the realities of the new immigration.
White men have been killing Black men for over 400 years without cause or consequence. The killings have reduced in the last few years; so has discrimination. But there is a long way to go. Racism is with us despite the valiant efforts and progress over the years. Most Black people believe it is endemic and only political correctness has reduced it. They buttress this view by showing that the criminal justice system is skewered against them, hence the preponderance of Black people in prison.
Finally, the US Prison Administration has a bureau of statistic. I wonder whether there is any such bureau in the Ministry of Internal Affairs which controls our prison system. How many Nigerians are in gaol, for what crimes and for how long? What is the ethnic composition of our prisoners – how many Igbo, Yoruba, Efik, Urhobo, Hausa, etc? We are still awaiting the release of the report of the young graduates who died trying to gain employment in our Immigration Service.