My walk through Beverly underscores need for race talk

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Robert Felton

During a speech delivered to U.S. Justice Department employees, Eric Holder, the nation's first African-American Attorney General, said that the United States was "a nation of cowards" by consistently avoiding serious discussions about race.

Holder explained that while many workplaces are integrated, most workers prefer to self-segregate in their social circles and on weekends.

The Black History Month-themed speech drew the ire of some, who criticized Holder's bluntness as inflammatory. I, for one, applaud his frankness - That, despite the progress our country has made since the water hoses and burning crosses of the Civil Rights era, we are still a nation quietly apathetic with regards to racial issues.

Recently, I was en route to a Border's bookstore located just two miles from my South Side apartment. During the Sunday afternoon walk, one I'd taken dozens of times before to save time, I made my usual trek through North Beverly.

After I turned a corner and was within a basketball-court distance away from the bookstore, I attracted the attention of an unmarked sedan which immediately pulled over beside me and two police officers stepped out. The two officers, both black, told me that a man in the area "fitting my description" was attracting attention in the area for "sauntering throughout the neighborhood" (well, that's one way to describe a walk to the store).

"Why are you over here?" the taller one asked, not saying directly that I was stopped for a WWB - Walking While Black.

With as much humility as my cynical tone could muster, I told them I was simply walking to the bookstore. Perhaps to assure all the "T's" were crossed, they began grilling me on where I lived, had I ever been arrested, and why was I "over there" when I lived barely a mile away, and so forth.

Knowing they were highly suspicious of me, even though I've never received so much as a traffic ticket, I allowed them to run a background check right there along with a check of my address and social security number. I knew I had no reason to believe there would be a further incident and my calmness certainly added much to my cause.

However, the taller officer, satisfied that I was not dealing or stealing or loitering, delivered a stern reminder to me as I slid my ID back into my wallet - "Those cul-de-sacs are there for a reason."

In other words, those strategically-placed barriers located throughout my neighborhood are there to systematically segregate the North Beverly area (i.e. mostly white) from the South Beverly area (i.e. mostly black).

Before they left, hopefully in pursuit of actual criminals regardless of their race, the other officer said, "I know it's a free country, but maybe you shouldn't be walking through here anymore."

I don't know. Should we tell Austin residents they can't walk through Oak Park anymore because it is "not their area?" This incident for me perfectly typifies the entire intent behind Holder's words. We've made tremendous strides as a country in overcoming our racial differences but there are still dozens who mistakenly believe we've already transcended them. We have not.

I'd like to ask those sitting in their living rooms in North Beverly who felt the need to call the police on a journalist: what about my walking to the store aroused your suspicion? Would you have felt the same if I was in the same attire (jeans, coat, sneakers and wearing MP3 headphones) but were white?

Why is that area called North Beverly anyway even though it's actually located south of my apartment? Is "North" a code word for "the best part" or the "white part?" And do you feel as though you've done all you could to have the type of dialog that Holder so accurately encourages you to have?

If so, why not answer the question for yourself as to why those cul-de-sacs are still necessary in the first place.

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