Donald Trump’s xenophobic discourse has awaken a silent MINORITY. His portrayal of Muslims and Latinos as a threat to America’s security and social fabric has inspired hate crimes against non-Whites. His and his followers’ nativism made me remember how I struggled to learn the ways of mainstream America culture and how I tried to be perceived as a good citizen- what some would call “politics of respectability.”
Years ago I moved with my wife to New Brunswick, New Jersey. She had been accepted to a Ph.D. program at Rutgers University and I was completing a Masters in Military History at Temple University in Philadelphia. We settle into our new apartment on 374 Livingston Avenue, strategically located between campus and the real world.
One morning, I saw our septuagenarian neighbor getting off the bus with several grocery bags. I walked to him and I offered my help. Reluctantly, he accepted. We started talking. I soon found out that he had arrived to the U.S. shortly after the end of WWII at a very young age. His wife had passed a few years ago. They had no children. He gave me a quick lecture of the neighborhood’s story. My wife came to meet us just in time to hear him say “This was a good neighborhood but then the Niggers came and the Spics right behind them.”
My wife was furious. I was curious. You see, I’m Puerto Rican and to this day I have a very recognizable accent even though I have been in the U.S. since 1999 and I work in professional settings in which I’m required to speak in English publicly. So just imagine my accent sixteen years ago when this incident happened. I was still trying to figure out the language’s grammar and its pronunciation completely escaped me. I thought, “Hum, does he hear my accent?”
He noticed his words had an impact so he timidly asked “Where are you from?” “Puerto Rico!” we said almost in unison. Without missing a beat he said “Oh but you don’t look it, you are nice people.” I decided it was not worthy pushing the matter so I just said “have a good day” and went back to our apartment. After discussing the matter we simply laughed it off.
Was there anything else to do? We had enough in our plates to worry about the racist views of an old frail man. He was not a threat. He had no power over us. His biases could not hurt us. I continued helping him with his groceries and the old man seemed to genuinely engage my company and our talks in those walks from the bus to his house’s door. He never made another comment about us but he was convinced that the Guatemalan 3-year old boy from the next house over was messing with his trash and recycling. Never mind New Jersey rodents.
I wasn’t a threat to the old man either. I was always courteous. And, since I was a graduate student who made ends meet by teaching at Rutgers University I always dressed professionally. To top it off, one weekend a month he saw me donning a U.S. Army National Guard uniform. Yes, I was definitely one of the good guys in his book. To the old Italian immigrant I was a good Puerto Rican, a good Spic. Not that I really care about it. Like I mentioned, he had no power over my wife and I. So, to me, his biases were not a danger to be addressed, at least not directly. I thought it was even possible to change one heart at a time by showing the old man with actions how wrong he was about Puerto Ricans, Latinos and African Americans.
I felt safe in New Jersey, even welcomed and certain that I could deal with racism, be it the type that comes out as micro-aggressions or institutionalized racism. Why not? I was a professional with a college degree, teaching at a respectable university, and I had almost a decade of military service. By all measures I was an upstanding citizen. And I behaved accordingly.
That all changed one spring. The semester came to an end and my peers and colleagues from Rutgers prepared to leave for the summer after turning in final grades. My wife and I hosted a BBQ in our apartment’s yard. Some twenty people came- all graduate students and professors. Without any warning, police officers came into my yard without asking for permission to come in and ready to draw their weapons just to find a bunch of intellectuals sitting around a long table sipping wine and chatting, no music, no drugs, and no menace to society.
Even though they had walked into a very mild BBQ and it was obvious no underage drinking was taking place (a common occurrence in college) the cops behaved very aggressively. One of them would ask me a simple question such as “Who lives here?” and as I tried to answer another would scream on the right side of my face “He asked you a question, answer it!”
Mind you, I was unfazed. These cops playing bad cop/emotionally-challenged cop had nothing on my Basic Training Drill Sergeants. So I kept answering questions until I had enough and said: “Why are you here, why do you come into my house’s backyard, uninvited, do you have a warrant? If you don’t have one, then you can’t come into my house.” The officer that seemed to be in charge responded that someone called to report a party out of control, “disturbing the peace.” I saw my Italian neighbor peeking through his window- I pointed to his house and asked, “Did he call you, was it him?” The old man turned his lights off. The officer said he didn’t have to tell me that and asked for my I.D.
“My I.D., why? I don’t have an ID with me” I responded.
“Why don’t you carry and ID?”
“Because no law requires me to carry an I.D. especially when I’m IN MY HOUSE, and because last time I checked I don’t live in Nazi Germany.”
Another officer came and told me, “Sir, we just need to see an I.D. and we will be out here.” He was the first one to talk to me with a modicum of respect and not like if I were some sort of criminal. The first, and only one to call me sir. So I went upstairs to get my I.D. and in the process, I got upset.
The police had walked into my house’s yard, two of the officers had yelled at me for no reason, and now I was going upstairs to get my I.D.? When I came back I gave them my military I.D. and told the officer in charge “Do you only need my I.D. or do everyone with an accent should render theirs too?” He exploited and started screaming “You called me a racist? Officer Chang, Officer Chang, come here and write him a ticket, write him a ticket!”
To prove he wasn’t racist he called the only non-White officer to write me a ticket. It figures. I wasn’t going to let it rest either. Two officers flanked me as officer Chang wrote me the ticket while looking at my military I.D. Seemingly embarrassed, he asked, “man you are in the Army?” I said “Yes, actually this is my going away party so you guys should feel really proud of your great work.”
The officer in charge started to tell everyone that they had to go home. I interrupted him. “No they don’t have to go home unless they want to. No one is underage, we are not disturbing the peace. There is nothing illegal going on here. You just wrote me a ticket now leave my home and I will see you in court.” And they left.
I used the “Army” card to prove my worth, my belonging. It bothered me that I had to use it. Simply being a “decent” “productive” “citizen” wasn’t enough. My accent, ethnicity, culture, nationality- take your pick- demanded that I went an extra mile so I could be treated- in my own home- with a degree of dignity and respect.
Later in the summer I went to West Point with a detachment from my New Jersey National Guard unit for annual training. An African-American sergeant from my section overheard that I was going back to New Brunswick in a couple days to be in court. She asked why. I told her everything and it so happened that she was a police officer, a sergeant, in the same police department as the ones who gave me a citation. She was their senior so she called them and told them that they had made a mistake, that she knew my character. She also told me that the police officer in charge that night had a temper. At any rate, I should not worry for they were not going to show up in court.
They did not show up. I stood before an African-American judge. He said that the state wasn’t ready to present its case and that I would be assigned another day in court. If the state was not ready a second time then the charge would be dismissed. I went back to West Point.
Over a month later I went to my second court date after teaching all day. I was well dressed and I was well prepared. I was finally called before an Italian-American judge. He asked what happened. I tried to explain. I had written it down my talking points- and I also wrote phonetically some words that were hard to pronounce so I would not lose my train of thought- the whole thing made me nervous. The judge interrupted me every time- I did not get to answer a single question.
He finally look at my address and said:
“374 Livingston Avenue. I know the neighborhood. I grew up there. It used to be a good neighborhood, now is gone to the dogs.”
It was crystal clear. His message wasn’t that coded. We Niggers and Spics had ruined his childhood neighboorhood.
“The law requires me to let you go because for the second time the state is not ready to present its case. Do you understand? The law tells me to dismiss your case. But I won’t let you go. I will make you come back a third time and maybe then you will be humble and show that you repent.”
I could not believe my ears. Was it my clothes? Was I too well dressed for my station? Was it my demeanor? I address him as “your honor” every single time. I showed respect when I addressed him. Apparently, I was being uppity for trying to defend my case. I tried to appeal just to be cut off.
“You say another word I will find you in contempt and you will spend the night in jail. Now go and the third time you come here this will be solved.”
I was livid. There I was trusting that I could be treated fairly- just like anybody else- no special treatment- just treated like anybody else. But the judge misused the power vested on him by the State to show me that before the law I was not to be his equal- at least not in his court.
So a third time I went to court. This time two of the police officers were there. I was sitting inside the court and they approached me and asked if we could talk outside. They told me that they had been told to appear this time and that I should take any deal they offer me. I told them I would not and that I rather see the judge and defend my case. I had brought letters from my neighbors, from my National Guard company commander, and from colleagues attesting to my character. I had even brought a chart of my apartment’s location showing how they police officers had entered into my yard. It would’ve been easier to make a deal- but this was a matter of principle.
We all went into the prosecutor’s office who told me there would be no deal, that the police officers had given me a chance and that I threw it out. All this without even looking at me. I got up and told him we were on the same page for I did not want to make a deal. I would see them inside.
When the judge called me call me the officers were not there, neither the prosecutor. I got the same African-American judge who saw me the first time. He said I looked familiar and remembered I had been before him several months ago. He noticed this was my third time there. He finally said. “I’m sorry you are here for a third time. This should’ve been solved the second time you were here. What happened?”
I said I didn’t know. He said that the prosecutor’s office had instructed him to dismiss the case and that he agreed. And that was the end of it.
I was happy it was finally over. But I was still upset. I have always tried to be more than a good citizen, an upstanding one, to be courteous, to respect my elders, to obey the law, to go beyond the minimum requirements of civility, to be invested in my community, to serve my country, to always do the right thing. And I had always thought that if I did the right thing the state would be on my side and institutionalize racism would not get to me. The old man’s biases could not hurt me, until he employed the state’s structures and those representing the state happened to share his biases.
Even after the first encounter with the police officers I still believed that when I went before the judge I would get a fair chance and the law would protect me from the actions of the police officers. The second judge shattered all illusions I had. It left me bitter (for a while). And it made me distrust the system.
But being bitter does nothing for me, for my family, for my community. I still do the right thing. But I’m also vigilant. I have become more politically active as I grow older. I still don’t care about micro-aggressions or people with biases. We all have biases. I will laugh them off. But I do care about people using the structures of the state to enshrine their biases and racist views and to solidify their commanding position in society.
I do not need you to accept me, or my accent, or my culture. This is my country too. I’m not a guest. I’m part of it. And so are millions of Latinos and Muslims, the same people that are now the target of the Republican presidential front runner and his followers.
You may try to get away arguing that you don’t agree with his racist views and ideas. But if you are voting for him you are supporting his agenda. You are making my family and my community a target. And you are not demanding equality but preferential treatment based on your skin color and religion. You want the state to guarantee your commanding position in society- and that is the racism we will not tolerate.
American Muslims and Latinos will continue to be good citizens, to invest in their communities and the country as a whole, not because we need your approval or because we have to prove anything- but because this is our country and we will move it forward regardless of Trump and his racist followers. Count on it.