An Unpleasant Evening the Heart of the Nation’s Capitol

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. - From the United States’ Declaration of Independence

“F*****g Niggers!” someone shouted at the top of his lungs! I turned to see an older white man in a business suit walking down the sidewalk past the patio. He shouted it once more before disappearing down the street.

The weather in Washington, DC last Friday evening was perfect. Spring is desperately trying to push winter weather aside. So, sitting outside at a bar seemed a great idea. This staple of the Washington social scene is cigar-friendly lounge and restaurant located just two blocks from the White House in the heart of the city. I found myself sitting with my friends John and James. John, a West Pointer, and James, a lawyer specializing in international business, are also African American men. Seated not far from us were a couple of young white men, probably in their late twenties or early thirties. Everyone was having a great evening of cocktails and cigars.

After about a half-hour or so, we heard the man scream the epithet.

We were initially speechless at the display. My friends and I stared at each other in wide-eyed amazement before we finally found any words. We shook our heads in disgusted incredulity before starting to discuss the event and voicing our agreement of how that display of hatred and ignorance had disrupted an otherwise enjoyable evening. Again, no one in our party or any of the other groups sitting in the patio area had an interaction with the individual prior to him hurling the racial insult or afterward.

A few minutes later one of the young white men seated next to us broached the subject. “Excuse me,” he started. “Is that normal?”

           “No, not in DC,” John answered.

           “But it's not unusual other places,” I added.

           “Holy crap,” the young man added. “What amazed me is that you guys didn’t say anything or do anything to him.”

           “That’s because we simply have too much to lose to get in a fight with some jerk in downtown DC,” John replied.

The evening returned to its previous sedate state, and our conversation returned to the ever-popular subject of politics. An hour or so later when we were departed, the two young men seated near us bid us a good evening, and we returned their good wishes. Just before we walked away, I said to them, “Tell your friends what you saw here tonight.”

This story is intended to inform versus complain. There are more than a few of my fellow Americans, like the young people who sat near us when this event occurred, that do not believe that overt acts of racism happen and that we are now a post-racial society. Those young men were if only for a moment jarred into a new reality. That reality is one in which I have lived my entire life; in my personal life-growing up in Alabama to my life in Washington, DC; in my professional life-from my first commanding officer to my last, who was also a Navy Admiral. Our action last Friday evening of basically “shrugging it off” has both, good and bad points. On the positive side, my friends and I have found a way to compartmentalize our anxiety in the face of overt racism. Conversely, that act of ignoring it almost normalizes the behavior as just being part of life in America. I submit that neither is desired state.

Racism is still here, and it is real, alive and well. Racism is a part of every part of our society; business, crime, education, politics, etc. That’s not news for anyone who is a person of color living in this country. I suspect the plight of women, especially women of color, is worse. And I would be remiss if I didn’t say that calling it out for its ugliness is something I expect from my leaders, all of them. Moreover, when they do not, it only encourages this plague to continue. When the President of the United States puts White Supremacists shouting the same racial trash as the man described above on the same level as those protesting them, that leader is not fulfilling their responsibility of leading and uniting our country.

John, James and I are all over 45 years old. We have attained levels of success in our individual professional lives. We truly have too much to lose by answering insults like the one expressed above with our fists, despite our initial desires to do so. However, there are multitudes of others who are not as mature, evolved, or successful. The point here is that in 2018, one has to ask, when is this going to stop? Why are Americans putting other Americans to that test? When are we going to start behaving as the words of our first founding documents compel us?