The uproar over the racially charged arrest of a black Harvard professor by a white Cambridge, Mass., police officer found a diplomatic solution as the two men met with President Obama last Thursday. The three of them enjoyed a beer at the White House and discussed racial profiling. The incident made me think about some of the indignities I’ve faced as a young African-American golfer, and about how difficult it can be to reconcile the difference between racial profiling and racism.
There have been lots of little things — stares, denials of guest rates, and airport personnel that refused to return my clubs to me — but one particular incident stands out. Several years ago I was a guest at a country club in suburban Connecticut, playing in a foursome with three white men. It was a scorching afternoon, so at the turn I decided to grab a drink. Dressed in a golf shirt, slacks and golf shoes, I jogged over to the snack shack, placed my order and gave the member’s name and account number.
“Caddies can’t order food for themselves with a member’s number,” said the Hispanic teenager behind the counter.
“I’m a player,” I said.
Eventually the member came over to settle things, but the damage had been done; the attendant had presumed that a young black guy had to be a caddie. In a written apology from the club, I was told that the counterman was inexperienced and didn’t follow protocol, but a part of me understood his dilemma. In his experience, I’m sure, all the players he had encountered at this club were white, and if he had ever seen other black players, they were probably older, more distinguished-looking men.
Golf, especially at the country-club level, does not reflect the changing racial landscape of America. When I tell people about the incident at the course, they’re flummoxed that the person guilty of the profiling was a minority. But it makes sense. Golf is a tradition-laden sport whose history is tied to the rituals and mannerisms that have made it the favored pastime of society’s elite. The counterman had no reason to believe another reality.
Every day cops of all shades make snap judgments about men based on the external similarities between them and most of the men in this country’s jails. It’s hard to know fully what Sgt. James Crowley’s intentions were with Henry Louis Gates Jr. But I know firsthand that while racial profiling isn’t always perfectly racist, it is no less disturbing, even if it is understandable.