Pratt Wiley, who heads the business organization The Partnership, always brings his ID when he leaves the house, even to walk the dog, in case anyone questions who he is. Corey Thomas, chief executive of Rapid7, recalls being stopped by building security once because a receptionist said he scared her. When publicist Colette Phillips shops in an upscale boutique, she makes sure to carry a small purse so she won’t be suspected of shoplifting.
They are all Black, they are leaders in our community, and these are the stories of the everyday indignities they suffer because of the color of their skin.
These experiences are not unique to being Black in Boston, but rather what it means to be Black in America today. They are being shared as part of a Me-Too reckoning on race as protests erupt nationwide over yet another killing of an unarmed Black man in police custody.
“I wish people could just live in the body of a Black male that is confronted by law enforcement, just so you can feel the disrespect and how unnecessary it is,” said Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins, who recounted an episode when a Boston police officer went “nuclear” on him over a minor traffic incident, letting up only when the officer realized who Tompkins is.
Locally, Emerson College president Lee Pelton broke open the dam a week ago in a personal and powerful letter to the campus, written in the wake of what he described as the “legalized lynching” of George Floyd.
Pelton wrote about being called the n-word by white people in every state and city he has ever lived in. He wrote about being pulled over while driving Black more times than he can remember. He recalled how in the 1970s, a decade after the passage of two Civil Rights acts, he still had to order food from the back of an alley of a restaurant in Arkansas.
His anecdotes struck a chord because they show how neither personal achievement nor stature shield people of color from discrimination, bringing to light systemic racism that is pervasive as it is pernicious. In a story that has gone viral, Tim Duncan, the former deputy athletic director at Northeastern University, recounted how police cruisers surrounded him and his wife as they were walking to the Whole Foods in their Newton neighborhood on May 20. One officer even drew his gun. The Newton police had been staking out a house, looking for a suspect connected to a fatal shooting. Both Duncan and the suspect are tall Black men.
“The fact that we, as professional men, face these challenges only illustrates what men without our advantages must endure each and every day,” said Wiley, whose organization advances professionals of color. “White privilege is the absence of all these incidences.”
For Eastern Bank president Quincy Miller, his earliest memory of racism was when he was just a child, playing on his first football team at age 8 in Harrisburg, Pa. He loved it, but after one season, his mother told him: “We’re changing teams.”
His mother, Miller recounted, got hassled because her “black kid came in and took a position from a white kid.” She moved him to an inner-city team.
Like many other Black men, Miller has been stopped by cops for no apparent reason. Every time he drives by a police car or when one pulls up behind him, he gets nervous.
“You get that white knuckles," he said. "Am I doing anything wrong?”
It’s why Miller is careful to not have more than one glass of wine or beer when he has to drive. It would be too risky if he’s pulled over by a police officer looking to give him a hard time.
“I have the utmost respect for the police force,” said Miller, but “it only takes one — as we saw with George Floyd — to take your life. That is what people of color live with.”
Even as a law enforcement officer, Tompkins, the Suffolk sheriff, has found his badge doesn’t always protect him from humiliation. One Fourth of July, Tompkins was visiting family in New Jersey, and while driving he encountered a sobriety checkpoint. When the police asked for his ID, Tompkins also showed him his sheriff’s badge.
The police officer, Tompkins said, just laughed at him: "'Look at this toy badge. You’re not part of your law enforcement. You can get it in a dime store.' "
His cousin was in the car with him, Tompkins said, and witnessed the scene.
“I couldn’t tell you how embarrassed I was,” he said. “I was part of that fraternity. There was still no respect for me.”
Thomas, who runs the Boston cybersecurity firm Rapid7, recounts a business trip to California when he went out for an evening jog in Marina del Rey. Among all the other joggers on the scene, the police car only stopped to question him.
“Why are you here?” the officer asked Thomas.
His simple explanation that he was out for a run didn’t seem to satisfy the officer, so Thomas finally told him: “I am going to keep jogging. You can arrest me.”
The situation did not escalate, but it still sticks in his mind. “It’s that reminder,” Thomas said, “you just don’t belong here.”
And in Boston, Thomas remembers the time he picked up his son’s orthopedic shoes just as the office was closing. Security was called after a receptionist saw Thomas and reported an attempted burglary.
The security guard left Thomas alone, but he sought out an explanation from the receptionist. She told Thomas: “'You need to look at it from my perspective. I was scared for my life.'”
“You can’t believe this is still happening," said Thomas.
Richard Taylor said he doesn’t mind the stories about Black men in tuxedos being mistaken for the valet. “That won’t kill you,” he said. “We can all laugh at that.”
It’s the interactions with police officers that worry him, and there have been plenty in his lifetime. He has been followed by a police car in his own Newton neighborhood after a report of a house burglary. Or the time he was pulled over twice while driving his family to ski in Lake Placid, N.Y: first for driving too fast, then for driving too slow.
“It’s Black middle-class harassment,” said Taylor, a former transportation secretary under Governor William Weld and now the director of the Center for Real Estate at Suffolk University.
Like many other Black parents, Taylor had to give his children “the talk” about how to act when stopped by the police. Keep your hands on the steering wheel and always ask permission before reaching for documents in the glove compartment.
His children are adults now, but he is concerned they may have a false sense of security. “They think they are invincible because they are Black middle class,” Taylor said. “You have to explain to them you can have a tie on, you can have a suit on, [but] in the eyes of some law enforcement officials, you are a Black man out of place, and you need to be put in your place.”
While stories of Black men getting harassed by law enforcement are more prevalent, Black women are not immune. Phillips, the Boston publicist, stopped driving a Mercedes Benz years ago because she kept being pulled over by police on the highways.
The discrimination doesn’t stop there. Wearing sweats at the Canyon Ranch spa, another guest stopped Phillips in the hallway and asked for a towel. “I’m a guest,” she had to tell him.
Doing business in Boston, some potential clients expect Phillips’s rates to be lower than her white counterparts'. One businessman was surprised that her rates were comparable. “I’m glad we were on the phone. My jaw fell to the floor,” said Phillips. “He was expecting that I would give a better price.”
Wiley, the Partnership CEO, said the everyday accommodations that he and other Black men must make to “maintain your dignity while preserving your physical safety" are exhausting.
While in Florida last Thanksgiving, Wiley forgot his razor but was hellbent on finding a replacement because he needed to be clean-shaven in case police stopped him while driving; a clean-cut look would mean less trouble.
Wiley and other Black executives said they are sharing their experiences, uncomfortable as they are, in the hope they will help make this moment different, one that becomes at long last a genuine turning point in race relations.
“That is going to be the test. It’s not about how Black America and communities of color feel," said Wiley. "It is when white America says this is enough.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com.