Racial Profiling on the Main Line
This past July, Jordan and Joshua Friday confronted one of those endless summer days that teenagers are given. They journeyed by bicycle to an aunt’s house to swim, met up with a friend, and stopped to get pizza. After lunch, the trio went looking for a fourth friend in the Greens of Waynesborough, a small housing development near their Berwyn home. Jordan and Joshua, 15-year-old African-American high-school students, were unfamiliar with this subdivision. They figured they’d reach the fourth kid on his cell phone or find his house. The identical twins, long and thin, both over six feet tall, were dressed in shorts and colorful t-shirts. They wore school backpacks slung over their shoulders, and bicycle helmets strapped tight to their heads. The twins — mom is a lawyer, dad is a doctor — pedaled slowly past wide lawns and big million-dollar houses, feeling right at home. But this development stretched several blocks from the main road.
The fourth boy didn’t answer his cell phone. The Fridays weren’t quite sure where he lived. And at some point, the white friend they’d come with pedaled ahead of them. He was almost a full block away when the Fridays noticed the SUV.
Its driver pulled up near them — a white lady in sunglasses. Her face bore a stern expression, and she held her cell phone, landscape-style, toward the windshield. The twins didn’t know what to think. Jordan Friday waved to her, to say hello. Then they ignored her and went on looking for the other boy. But the woman continued to track their every move. After a few minutes, Jordan wanted out. He pedaled away, hard, to catch up with the third kid. Joshua maintained his slow, rolling pace. But when the woman in the SUV stayed with him, he panicked. He pedaled faster, took every available turn, doubled back on his path. He didn’t know where he was going. He just wanted to lose her. But she stuck right behind him, still holding her cell phone up, presumably to record him. He decided on a new tactic.
“I just thought,” he recalls, several weeks later, “I’d pedal up to her window and ask, ‘Why are you following me?’”
He turned his bike around to face the SUV directly. He started forward, toward the driver’s-side door.
The woman dropped her phone on the seat, put both hands on the wheel, and drove off, her stern expression given over to fear.
Joshua looked around.
By now, he was lost. He didn’t see his brother, their friend, or the boy they’d been trying to find. He tried navigating away from dead ends. He looked for turns that led to the exit and the main road. The streets had been empty before. Now he noticed a lot of people outside. He pedaled past one group that gathered near the curb. A woman’s voice rang out shrilly, calling a man’s name.
“I thought she was calling for her husband,” says Joshua. “I was scared that I was going to be attacked.”
He rode harder now, catching sight of his brother near the subdivision exit, only to be joined when he got there by the police. The boys were stopped and briefly questioned. One of the cops recognized the twins as neighborhood residents and allowed them to go on their way. But the sweet summer day that had stretched out so beautifully beforehand, that had hours left to run, looked suddenly dangerous.
The Fridays rode home and told their mom, Anita, what had happened. She immediately went with them to the police station for more details. When they returned to their house, they stayed there, surrounded by 6,000 square feet of luxury and ghosts: Trayvon Martin, Rumain Brisbon, Walter Scott … the roll call of unarmed African-Americans shot to death by citizens or police. The Fridays understood the day’s events as a brush with those tragedies. And they had ghosts of their own, because being targeted wasn’t new to them. Being targeted was more of the same — the same problem that has afflicted their young lives, the City of Philadelphia, the Main Line, and all of America.
The Main Line is, statistically, one of the most affluent and highly educated regions in the country. It’s also overwhelmingly white and a bastion of privilege. And so when Anita Friday posted about the incident online and the post went viral, that was more of the same, too — the second Main Line racial incident to blow up this year.
SOME SIX MONTHS before the Fridays took their bike ride, on a January afternoon after a heavy snowfall, Deborah Saldana arrived at her Penn Wynne home and saw two black teenagers her father had hired shoveling her sidewalk. She walked inside, looked out moments later, and saw that the shoveling had stopped. A squad car was parked out front. Police were questioning the kids, and an officer told her they were “conducting an investigation.” She didn’t like the scene already, and liked it less when the police ordered the teens to sit in the snow. She thought the stop was wrong, an instance of racial profiling, and she snapped a picture from her window.
After maybe 20 minutes, the police left the kids to finish shoveling. Saldana took to the Lower Merion community page on Facebook. The post blew up into a thread more than 1,000 comments long. Local news outlets produced stories. Police subsequently released information about the incident: They said that the snow shovelers were men, 18 and 34 years old; asking them to sit, even in the snow, was just protocol. The police said the stop was legal — the enforcement of a local ordinance requiring any adult soliciting door-to-door to have a permit.
Deborah Saldana never returned phone calls asking her to be interviewed for this article. In earlier interviews, she expressed doubt about the police version of events. She described the snow shovelers as having “small, skinny builds” and smooth teenage faces. Lower Merion police superintendent Mike McGrath declined to release any paperwork to help confirm the ages.
The dispute matters. Only adults are subject to the solicitation ordinance. Local residents, skeptical as Saldana, posted fliers looking for the snow shovelers. No one came forward. Regardless, the incident struck a nerve: The image of two working African-American young men sitting in the snow while a white cop stands nearby distills the larger issue of racial profiling to its essence.
Of course, these incidents — the Fridays’ bike ride and Saldana’s shovelers — are minor in comparison to the police killings that usually spark racial debate. That might also be why they drew attention. Perhaps it’s easier to see what happened here because there is no bloodshed to distort the view, no police claiming they were attacked. These are just kids, definite ones and supposed ones, targeted by civilians and police though they’d clearly done nothing wrong.
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, the Fridays moved from Sudbury, Massachusetts, to the Main Line, selecting the neighborhood mainly for its blue-ribbon public schools. They enrolled their sons at Tredyffrin/Easttown Middle School, where they learned lessons outside the core curriculum. Anita Friday only discovered how difficult a time her sons had in school after they were asked to write an essay on the topic of tolerance.
“It was a social-studies course,” remembers Joshua, “and we had just been studying Alabama [and the civil rights movement there]. We were supposed to write about whether or not we’d progressed and whether or not America is an accepting society.”
The Friday boys were in separate classrooms, navigating the same seventh-grade curriculum. They never discussed the assignment, yet both offered the same assessment. “My personal experiences as an African-American are extremely outrageous,” wrote Joshua Friday, “and kids think it’s just what I should be used to.”
“I myself am a victim of those intolerant people who say things because of my skin color,” wrote Jordan Friday. “They call me names, or whenever we read or talk about Africa they laugh and point at me. … The N word is commonly thrown around … even though there is literally nothing different about us except our skin color.”
The boys had found that their white classmates expected them to conform to every stereotype — to love rap music, say “yo,” be good at basketball and struggle with classwork. When Joshua made the basketball team, his white classmates shrugged. “Of course you did,” they told him. “You’re black.”
“I had almost no pride in the achievement,” Joshua wrote in his school essay.
An assigned book with an African protagonist, Of Beetles and Angels, marked them for more abuse — “Isn’t this you?” — right in the middle of class. Teachers silenced the white kids, but the Fridays say they never meted out discipline, never used the jokes as a teaching moment.
African-Americans represent roughly 2.6 percent of the Tredyffrin-Easttown school district, and the Fridays felt worse than alone there. They felt completely disregarded, as if their emotions and desires held no importance. Rough treatment influenced every decision they made. Jordan chose clothes and music in a self-conscious effort to avoid fitting any stereotypes. Once a week, in the cafeteria, the school served fried chicken. The Fridays ordered other items.
“I didn’t want to deal with the jokes and the comments I got,” says Joshua.
The image is surreal: Jordan and Joshua Friday sat surrounded by white boys stuffing their faces with fried chicken. But they abstained, to avoid being subjected to racist jokes.
After a few months, Joshua got tired of the double standard. He ate what he wanted, swallowing the remarks — “There’s Joshua, eating fried chicken” — and his anger with the meal. Jordan never did. The carelessness of the other boys remained consistent.
Just a few days before the Fridays turned in their essays, in fact, Joshua heard a bunch of kids laughing at a joke he’d missed. Innocently, he asked them to repeat it.
“You don’t want to know,” one of the boys told him.
Joshua considered the boy a friend. And he figured from this response that the joke must have been racist.
“Tell me,” he insisted.
“Why are black people afraid of chain saws?” the kid asked.
“Because,” the kid answered, revving up his voice, “they say runnn-niggerr-rrruuuunnnn!”
ONLINE, REACTIONS to the police stops of the Fridays and Saldana’s workers veered between outrage on behalf of minorities and race baiting. Official responses were purely supportive. Frank Allen, the rector at Anita Friday’s church, St. David’s Episcopal — the Fridays are the only African-American members — addressed the “heart-breaking” incident in his email newsletter and called upon church members to investigate their own hearts.
In Lower Merion, Brian Gordon, a township commissioner, called the Saldana event and its aftermath “revelatory.”
It was Gordon, a corporate attorney, who convened a packed community meeting at the PALM Senior Center to deal with the controversy. Citizens, mostly African-American, lined up to speak. “What got me were the stories,” remembers Gordon. “Person after person. And they were just so moving.”
The Main Line, in fact, provides too many stories to print.
We could talk about Kerry Godbold, an African-American and a veteran Lower Merion police officer. He passed the sergeant’s exam three years ago but has yet to be promoted in a department where all the supervisors, and roughly 93.5 percent of the officers, are white.
We could talk about Nick Lai. Lai, who’s Asian, recently sued the Radnor Township police, alleging that his fellow cops began harassing him after he called them out on what he saw as a pattern of racial profiling. (The township denies the allegations.)
We could talk about a 15-year-old incident that has left scars in Lower Merion and in the nation — the controversial, fatal police shooting of Erin Forbes, the son of a microbiologist and a Temple University African-American studies professor. Forbes was 26 and employed, and had no criminal record. Lower Merion police claimed Forbes behaved irrationally in January 2000, allegedly robbing a convenience store and advancing on the officer who shot him wielding a walking stick.
I could tell you about Muneera Walker, a 53-year-old African-American general contractor who was driving along winding, dangerous Mill Creek Road in Gladwyne when a car behind her raced up to her bumper. The car drew perilously close in her rearview mirror, dropped back, then surged forward again, as if urging Walker to hit the gas. She could see the driver, a young white woman around 20 years old, in her rearview mirror.
This was a balmy day last August. Both drivers had their windows rolled down, and as Walker maintained her speed, around 30 mph, she reached one hand out her driver’s-side window, urging the young woman to slow down.
The next thing she knew, the young woman leaned, head and shoulders, out her window, waving her cell phone in one hand and steering with the other. “Look at this!” she yelled. “I’m going to call the police. You know they’ll get you! Get your black ass back to Philadelphia where you belong!”
What hurt Walker most is that all her experience told her the woman was right. If the police came and questioned them both, they’d be more likely to believe the young woman. Walker’s own son had recently been ordered out of a local convenience store because, Walker told me, he “looked like some other black kid” who caused trouble there and the staff wasn’t interested in hearing him out.
“It spans the generations,” Walker says. “You look at how far we’ve progressed and you realize the further we get, the clearer it is that we really haven’t gotten anywhere. And as a parent, I know my children will face these things. Because I face them.”
We could talk about the schools. Lower Merion is an epicenter of racial tension, with two recent race-based lawsuits. In one case, Blunt v. Lower Merion School District, seven African-American students sued the district for failing to provide the free and appropriate public education to which every child is entitled. The alleged events are heartbreakingly repetitive: Though testing showed the complainants were generally of average intelligence and learning skills in subjects like math, reading and comprehension, they were misidentified as requiring special education.
Parents do have the right to demand that their children be “mainstreamed” and receive a regular curriculum. But according to the plaintiffs’ attorney, Carl Hittinger, some parents initially believed district experts who advised them that their children had learning disabilities. Others claim school officials told them their children were being put into “enrichment programs,” as if they were receiving a bonus.
When parents objected to the district’s treatment, teachers and administrators often confounded them. One woman, Aginah Carter-Shabazz, says requests that her grandchild be mainstreamed were simply ignored. Another parent said she received paperwork indicating that her child would enter middle school in the regular curriculum. Come the fall, it turned out Penn Wynne staff had forwarded an entirely different set of paperwork to the child’s new school. The girl was enrolled, despite her mother’s wishes, in a special-education program.
During court proceedings for the case, a school psychologist admitted that he’d lied to two parents by saying that the testing protocols — the scoring methods — for their child were “destroyed.” Under oath, he admitted the protocols were intact.
The impact of such attitudes and actions can be seen not only in Lower Merion, but also in nationwide education statistics. African-American children are 1.4 times as likely as white children to end up in special-education programs.
The Fridays have also been touched by this issue: While they were living in Stamford, Connecticut, school officials directed Anita Friday’s eldest son into a remedial class.
She didn’t believe the recommendation. She had his IQ tested. When he scored at the genius level, she saw the principal.
“Aren’t you a lawyer?” the principal asked.
“Yes,” replied Friday.
“Well, you’re one of the good ones,” she says the principal replied. “We’ll put him in regular classes.”
Of course, being described as “one of the good ones” wounds Friday as deeply as any offense. She is proud of her achievement but does not view herself as exceptional. There is a dominant image of the black citizen that simply doesn’t comport with reality. African-American women have dramatically narrowed the “achievement gap,” graduating from high school at rates near those of white and Asian counterparts. For Friday, though, the issue is that racial tension exists at all — either up or down the demographic scale.
“To some degree, I got to pass the white people’s test because I went to Georgetown and I am a lawyer,” she says, “but you have the real progress when blacks who haven’t had the opportunities I have are just as valued as I am.”
The bias here, toward putting African-Americans into special ed, is obvious and can be charitably described as one of low expectations.
“Largely white administrators and schoolteachers are prone to see African-Americans as less capable,” says Halford Fairchild, a social psychologist who has studied the subject extensively. “The schools are inclined to set them aside into special-education programs. We call this ‘warehousing’ them.”
In Lower Merion, around the time the special-ed suit was filed in 2007, African-American kids comprised seven percent of the school population and 15 percent of special-ed students. That alone set a strong foundation to move the suit past preliminary court proceedings. But Blunt v. LMSD never made it to a jury.
“We prevailed at every level,” says LMSD spokesman Douglas Young. “But we don’t crow about it, because we recognize that this is all so sensitive.”
Young points out that the Blunt suit originated eight years ago. The district’s honors and AP enrollment for African-Americans has doubled since then. African-American kids continue to be over-represented in special-ed courses, but the gap has narrowed slightly: The now eight percent African-American student body makes up 13 percent of the special-ed population. As Loraine Carter, former president of the advocacy group Concerned Black Parents, points out, these improvements suggest the kids were never the problem.
The district judge, Harvey Bartle III — white, a Bryn Mawr native — declared that the plaintiffs hadn’t provided sufficient evidence that their alleged mistreatment occurred because they were black. Even if all the factual allegations in Blunt were true, in other words — a point that was never determined — who’s to say they were the result of racial bias? In a 2-1 decision, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit concurred.
The victory for LMSD drew a particularly vigorous dissent from Theodore McKee, the presiding judge and the only African-American on the three-judge panel. McKee declared that Bartle and his colleagues on the appeals court had overturned decades of settled case law. They’d required plaintiffs to offer evidence of the defendants’ state of mind and generally demanded the level of evidence expected at a jury trial — not a civil case’s preliminary stage.
The rules of the game were set so the plaintiffs in Blunt v. LMSD could never expect to win. And indeed, they lost — in court and in school. Consigned to special-education courses, they learned below-grade-level material and often missed courses in history and foreign languages entirely, dimming their college prospects. And they paid another price — losing confidence in themselves, feeling diminished.
An independent evaluator, checking up on the school’s diagnosis of one plaintiff, wrote that the girl almost gave up on being tested: “I can’t,” she said. To someone told she wasn’t good enough, the assignment looked too difficult. But “with encouragement,” the evaluator wrote, “she completed it in half the time allotted.”
ON A SPRING DAY a few years back, barbecue chef Keith Taylor drove to a bank on the Main Line to cash a check. He was in a hurry, his check already out, pinched between his fingers, but a few steps inside the door, he sensed something was amiss.
The teller stood frozen, staring at him.
When he met her gaze, Taylor says, she moved only her eyes, between him and another man, presumably a manager. Confused, Taylor glanced over, but the manager, too, only returned his stare. Taylor meekly raised the check in his hand. No one moved to serve him. Then another man slipped into place beside the first, assuming the same strange staring behavior.
“What is going on?” thought Taylor. “Isn’t anyone going to take my check?”
Seconds passed. And there Taylor remained: a big black guy standing in a bank, being stared at by three white people who made no move to serve him. Race didn’t enter his thinking until the police arrived.
A squad car drove right up on the sidewalk outside the front door. Two cops emerged and rushed into the bank. Taylor barely saw their faces. He was fixated on the way the officers’ hands rested on their guns. The bank managers pointed at him, and all else is obscured by the numbness and anger he felt, the familiar nausea.
The police never told him why they were there. They checked his ID, questioned him, and left. Later, he found out that a bank had been robbed in the neighborhood that morning. The suspect was black.
This wasn’t the first time he’d been treated with suspicion, or the last. Taylor, who runs his own restaurant, Zachary’s BBQ, providing soul food to the Main Line, faced frequent police traffic stops. He got so tired of being pulled over on his drive home late at night that he got a customized license plate: “BBQ Chef.” He figured the police would recognize the car and let him go. (At times, he says, he was getting stopped once a month.) The gambit worked. The stops ended. But ongoing experience with racial bias doesn’t make it easier. “I went ahead and deposited my check,” he says of his visit to the bank, “and got the hell out of there. I was so disgusted.”
Like the Fridays’ bike ride, this stands as a “good” story. Taylor, a 51-year-old father of four, isn’t Eric Garner, the 43-year-old asthmatic, unarmed black father of six whose “I can’t breathe” pleas were ignored by the officers who wrestled him to the ground. He isn’t Rumain Brisbon, the unarmed black father of four who was shot to death when police mistook a bottle of pills in his hand for a gun. And because Taylor is alive, he can even laugh, recognizing the episode as a great setup for a comedy sketch: A black man walks into a bank, pulls out a check, and everyone freezes. …
This is, in many respects, the usual story we hear about racial bias — the racial profiling that leads to mistaken detentions, arrests, assaults and even deaths. These are the sorts of stories that dominated the Lower Merion public meetings, and that so moved township commissioner Brian Gordon.
There’s Harry Mobley Jr., who was stopped half a block from his house, with a tie on and a computer bag over his shoulder. The police rushed him, guns drawn, because an African-American — described as lighter-skinned and a foot shorter — had allegedly just robbed someone several blocks away.
“It’s true what they say,” Mobley observes now. “When someone is pointing a gun at you, all you can see is the barrel, it looks so big.”
A white neighbor intervened. Mobley went on his way. But minutes later, when he was just steps shy of his train station, another policeman stopped him again. The laptop bag over his shoulder, the tie, the foot in height and skin-tone difference — none of it seemed to matter. He was a black guy.
This focus on racial profiling among police, however, risks missing the more fundamental point: A white citizen in an SUV profiled the Fridays. Three white bank employees targeted Taylor. The kids of Lower Merion were misdirected by educators into special-ed courses. There were no police at all involved in those incidents.
THE DAY THE FRIDAY TWINS turned in their essays, they arrived home to find their mother, their father and their uncle on their dad’s side all home from work. This was pure coincidence. No one suspected a crisis. But the uncle, a psychiatrist, asked the boys what they did in school. The boys, perhaps wanting to reveal themselves, handed over their essays. The adults began to read, passing the papers around. “We looked at each other,” remembers Anita, “and it was just three sets of eyes meeting in pain.”
Her parents moved to St. Louis in 1965, and she was among the first African-American kids to desegregate a school there. “I am not new to this,” she says.
She also understood that her sons had faced some difficulties at Tredyffrin. The previous school year, a teacher allegedly called one of her sons “a black ass.” Anita went to school the next day, determined to force some change, but says that administrators told her work rules tied their hands. (A district spokesperson acknowledges the Fridays made a complaint, but says the teacher involved denied the allegation. “We cannot discuss specific disciplinary matters regarding students or staff,” the spokesperson maintains.)
The twins, however, kept a lot of stories to themselves. Partly, they didn’t want to upset their parents. More fundamentally, they didn’t think a solution existed. They were being educated by the world outside their walls. “I just figured,” says Joshua, “this is how life is. Because I’m black.”
The morning after she saw her kids’ essays, Anita Friday went to Tredyffrin and asked for an immediate meeting with the principal. He was deeply apologetic and, according to Anita, asked her to recommend a speaker to address the student body and discuss issues of race.
Jordan and Joshua embarked upon the day with great hopes. Anita Friday attended both presentations. She found the speaker compelling. Raised as white, he only found out in his mid-20s that he is half African-American. She noticed that only a few teachers attended the event. And she was upset to hear later, from her sons, that there was no classroom discussion afterward. But the memory that sticks with her is what happened during the question-and-answer session. The students lined up at microphones, and one asked: “Don’t you wish you were still just white?”
LYNN BRANDSMA STRUGGLED to run with an oversized purse over her shoulder, a middle-aged mom more hobbling than sprinting across a Lower Merion field, on the way to her son’s track meet. By the time she reached him, he and his teammates were stripping off their warm-up clothes.
She expected them to be energetic before the meet, but they all looked listless and depressed.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“We’re going to lose,” her son told her.
“Why do you say that?”
The boys motioned to the other team.
Brandsma looked at them, standing tens of yards away, stretching and getting ready. Her son’s team, Welsh Valley Middle School in Lower Merion, was almost all white. The other team, from Norristown, was almost all black.
She pretended not to understand. “I don’t get it,” she said. “What do you mean?”
The kids knew they were in taboo territory. They moaned a chorus of discontent.
“Aww, c’mon,” they said.
“Let me ask you guys a question,” she said. “If you all had to go into the school and take a test in a contest against that team, how would you feel then?”
“Oh, we’ve got them there,” the white kids all agreed.
Brandsma was stunned. She felt like she’d raised her son free from any racial bias. She knew all these boys. “My son, these kids, they’re all good kids,” she says. But somehow they were invested in the stereotypes.
Research shows that racial bias is pervasive. In one 2014 study, people from diverse racial backgrounds remembered “smart” African-Americans as having lighter skin. In another from that year, a mostly white group perceived African-American boys, beginning at 10 years old, to be four years older and less “innocent” than their white peers.
Stereotypes hurt blacks no matter what: Conform to them — wear a hoodie, get angry, blow hip-hop out the windows of your car — and you’re dangerous. Diverge from them and you’re “not really black.”
Rapper and composer Schoolly D, who lived on the Main Line for many years, experienced a sense of alienation there. Early on, a neighbor called one day to inform him: “I am not comfortable calling you ‘Schoolly.’ I have not decided what to call you yet.”
“I was like, ‘What?’” says Schoolly. “‘You don’t get to name me.’”
Others told him he wasn’t black at all because he was so successful. Still others seemed ready to turn on him. “I’ve been watching you,” he was told by a white man at one party. “Quit looking at our women.”
“He really said that,” says Schoolly. “‘Our women.’ I blew it off the first time, but then it happened two other times, with other people, and they all used that same kind of phrasing: ‘Don’t look at our women.’ ‘Don’t touch our women.’”
The phrase calls to mind Dylann Roof, the young man who murdered nine black parishioners last summer in a historic Charleston church. Before he opened fire, Roof reportedly listed the supposed grievances that compelled him to kill, including “You rape our women.”
Samantha Taylor, a young African-American woman who grew up in Radnor, told me a white friend once sought to comfort her by saying, “Don’t worry. We know you’re white on the inside.” She understood the girl’s intention to be kind. But the judgment laid upon her brown skin was cruel and reflected a belief that being African-American is inherently bad. And aren’t “racial bias” and even the phrase “racial profiling” just euphemisms for the word few white people want to say?
Lower Merion commissioner Brian Gordon is a white progressive. He told me he wants to make sure regular meetings are held in Lower Merion on the subject of race. But he choked on “racism.” “The word is just so loaded,” he says.
In fact, Gordon retreated into platitudes about the “excellence” of the Lower Merion police department and the entire community. And yet the problems go on. In early November, another Lower Merion commissioners’ meeting became a forum on race. This time, residents were angry because of an incident in which police detained 58-year-old Nathaniel Williams as he waited for a bus. Police were searching for a suspect described as a black male in a hoodie and wearing glasses, who had allegedly just robbed a bank across the street. Williams, who fit this general description, was forced to his knees, cuffed and detained till a bank employee could come across the street and confirm that he was not the robber.
Again, the profiling seems obvious: How many bank robbers flee by crossing the street and waiting for a bus? And as one resident at the meeting put it: If the suspect had been described as a white man in a business suit, would he have been manhandled — forced to his knees and cuffed? (On November 20th, the LMPD released the results of an internal review that found the stop was “appropriate according to the policy, training and all legal standards for the stopping of a suspect possibly connected to a violent crime.”)
Despite the reluctance of Gordon and many others to use it, it’s hard to see how that incident — and many others in this story — are anything but racist.
White kids openly taunted the Fridays, using the n-word around them and challenging them to object: “Aw, you aren’t going to get offended now, are you?”
The kid who shared that racist joke at which a group of white kids was laughing was someone Joshua Friday considered a friend. But when he repeated the joke to Friday, he didn’t apologize or appear at all sheepish. “When he finished,” remembers Friday, “he burst out laughing in my face.”
One can attempt to camouflage this as the behavior of children. They can be so cruel. But the kids at Tredyffrin behaved according to their own feeling of superiority. They must have believed there would be no consequence for them in demeaning the Fridays, in making them feel small.
“They acted like we should just get used to it,” says Joshua Friday. “This is just what we deserved.”
EARLY THIS AUGUST, Tom Beers and Laurie Sweigard agreed to cooperate in an interchurch event marking the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Beers and Sweigard run Central Baptist Church in Wayne, two white pastors with a largely white, progressive membership. The event, on Sunday, August 9th, was quiet, a candlelit vigil. One of the event organizers from their partner church unfurled a banner that read “Black Lives Matter.”
Beers and Sweigard didn’t foresee any problems. Over the years, they’d taken stands on issues related to war and various social injustices. In the Carter years, they took in refugees from El Salvador, housing them in the church while their country was mired in civil war. But this was different.
“We got the first angry call the next morning,” says Beers, “and they kept coming.”
The callers all said pretty much the same thing: “How dare you put that sign on your lawn?” “Don’t all lives matter?” “You’re stupid, horrible people.”
Some callers claimed the banner violated a local ordinance regarding signage. One threatened to call the police. One man, who identified himself as a sergeant from Upper Darby, spoke with Beers for an hour. “It was a good discussion,” says Beers. “But it did feel odd that I had to justify this sign, any sign, to a police officer.”
A man who identified himself as the parent of a child at Episcopal Academy called. “That sign is not within your church’s First Amendment rights to have there,” he said. “The Episcopal Academy took away my son’s First Amendment rights by not allowing him to use the word ‘nigger!’”
By Wednesday, the church’s Facebook page had been targeted by white supremacist groups from around the country. “They have a huge banner out in front of their church that says Black Lives Matter,” one commenter posted. “Who is the cult leader? Their lives don’t matter.”
Fear took hold. Dylann Roof. Charleston. Beers and Sweigard started monitoring the site more closely, removing the racist thread. “You look at the shooting in that church,” says Beers, “and you see all it takes is one person among them to get into their head to do some copycat thing.”
They began taking safety precautions they decline to specify. And they added a second sign, as explanation. Together, the signs read: “Black Lives Matter. A nonviolent movement for racial equality, justice and redemption.”
They felt like the country, and clearly many on the Main Line, misunderstood the Black Lives movement. “The question ‘Don’t all lives matter?’ misses the point,” says Beers. “The proponents of ‘Black Lives Matter’ are focusing on the concerns of African-Americans because society already seems to recognize the worth of white lives. It’s black lives society needs to be reminded are important.”
The day Beers and Sweigard held that precipitating event on the church lawn, they didn’t give much thought to the sign. They had no plans to leave it up. But the Main Line’s anger made the decision for them. The sign stayed, and remains there still. “It became a call,” says Sweigard, “and concretized that we have a huge problem here on the Main Line, and this is what we need to be addressing.”
“We’d taken a lot of stands,” says Beers. “We had signs up on various political issues. Nothing had set the Main Line off like this until we used the word ‘black.’”
I MET WITH the Fridays in August, in their million-dollar house, with its cathedral ceilings and stylish, minimalist furniture. What I encountered was a family that had dealt with more than its share of frustration, pain and fear. Even so, they feel “lucky” and know it could be a lot worse.
The Friday boys are in high school now, at private schools, and both report that they are happier. But the bicycling incident taught them a chilling lesson: No matter how much money their parents make, the neighborhood they live in or the school they attend, they can’t completely escape.
I got to see the police report generated the day they were stopped for what their mother calls “bicycling while black.” There had been some recent burglaries in the area. The resident who called police described the boys as “suspicious,” and carrying “extremely large duffel bags.”
I asked the Fridays to show me the bags. They retrieved a typical high-school student’s backpack, which on that day had held a wet towel, a swimsuit and a small bag of candy. The pack looked nothing like a duffel, and the white lady in the SUV now looms as an example of unfounded racial fear. She saw two spindly teenagers with bicycle helmets and book bags; she perceived burglars equipped to carry away all her stuff.
Of course, this incident recalls others before it: Trayvon Martin, shot to death while walking home with little more than a bag of Skittles; Michael Brown, in Ferguson, described by the policeman who shot him as a “demon” who seemed to be “bulking up” in order to “run through the shots.”
“I’ve thought about something like this happening,” said Jordan, “like if I am being attacked, or there is some mistake and I am being shot by the police. I just thought, well, if something like this happens to me, I’ll just say, ‘Okay, I’m ready to die.’”
Tears began to roll freely down Anita Friday’s face. Fifty years after she helped desegregate one of this country’s schools, her child is taking the lesson from his brief life’s experience that he is so very vulnerable, his life so very cheap.
As our conversation wound down, I asked the Friday twins: “Do you ever start to internalize all of this? The way you were being treated in school … did you ever start to feel like there must be something wrong with you?”
Jordan Friday started to speak. Then all his young life’s pain caught in his throat. He choked, a guttural sound emerged, and he slumped forward, fighting back tears.
Picking up for his brother, Joshua answered the question. His words conveyed the sense of strength he’s been forced to acquire. But his brother’s choking silence, his lowered head, said something profound, too — about the damage that’s been done, that continues to be done, and the work that lies ahead.
Published as “A Place of Privilege” in the December 2015 issue of Philadelphia magazine.