A few years into my journalism career, I became friends with a fellow reporter. When you’re young in the business, small town newsrooms are makeshift college campuses, everyone living on next to nothing paychecks, far from home, pooling their resources for cheap beer and pizza at whomever’s apartment has enough chairs. This kind of reporter boot camp forces an intense bonding, one that fades as you move to bigger cities with better pay and older colleagues who are busy settling down and starting families.
One day I went with my friend to a well known high end department store to help him buy shirts for work. We were browsing the men’s department, searching for button downs that would look good on TV. I noticed a man behind us. When we moved to the pants, there he was again. When we headed to the dressing room, there he was again. Behind us, not looking at us, but there.
At some point I said something to my friend about the guy who seemed to be on our tail. He nodded, clicking through the rack, not even looking up to see who I was talking about.
“That’s my buddy,” he said. He smiled, a hard, grit-your-teeth smile. That’s when I learned the plain clothes security guard of this high end store followed my friend every time he came in. Every time.
It didn’t matter that my friend was the best dressed man in the store. It didn’t matter that he was an educated man, the son of educated parents. It didn’t matter that he was a great reporter, beloved by all who met him.
It mattered that he was black.
I was angry as he tried on his shirts in the dressing room, the man still hovering close by. I wanted to say something to the guard. My friend told me to let it go, that “That was the way it was.”
And I felt guilty. So guilty. It came from the knowledge that nothing like that had ever happened or would ever happen to me.
In our time together, I became a hawk, watching the world’s reactions to him. He said people wouldn’t be as intimidated if I was with him. He shared that on his morning runs, each time he crossed an intersection he would hear the click of car doors locking. When he walked home at night, he watched people cross the street to avoid him.
“I’m sorry,” I would say.
“Is what it is,” he would say. He wasn’t bitter. Just matter of fact.
I got the next job first. He got another job later. We lost track of each other. I went on to work in diverse newsrooms where my colleagues and I covered difficult stories of race over the years. Some of our frank conversations stay with me still.
In covering daily news for two decades, I formed friendships with countless police officers. Ask any reporter anywhere, and they will tell you that when you spend hours of your life waiting at crime scenes or for press conferences, you get to know each other. We shared pictures of our kids and talked of trips we hoped to take. They worked side jobs to make ends meet, directing traffic at my church and every construction project in town.
Baton Rouge. Falcon Heights, Minnesota. Dallas. Like Ferguson and Orlando, the names of these American cities now sound heavier on the lips.
The pain is deep and the fear is legitimate.
I dislike broad strokes. They are used to paint all of something as one. It’s done in presidential campaigns. In work places. If we’re honest, it’s done in our own heads.
I don’t have the answers, but I do think ignorance is the kissing cousin of fear. You rarely find one without the other.
The majority of people I’ve met in my life are decent and believe we are more alike than different.
Until that traffic stop. Until the protest that began peacefully. Until that night out at that club.
With respect to my friend, wherever he is, I await the day good people will no longer have to say four words —
Is what it is.