It was July 4, 1996. I was with my wife, our four children and our dear friends in the Kroger grocery store parking lot in Franklin, Tennessee. Lots of other patriots had gathered with us anticipating sundown so that we could enjoy the Independence Day celebration. While the sun still shone, we were all just killing time. Cars were lined up in their parking places while the erstwhile occupants lounged on truckbeds or wandered the aisles laughing and taking in the last moments of sun.
Our younger kids were getting restless, so to occupy them I volunteered to accompany them to get drinks and candy in the store. We walked toward the store—this slightly built black man and a gaggle of young white children. All the people we passed were also white, and as we walked I could feel the eyes on me. The kids were innocently oblivious. Not one to shy away, I looked up to greet or at least make eye contact with anyone who dared to keep up the stare. Several young men obliged with scowls that showed me they weren’t in a greeting mood. They wore a standard uniform each punctuated by a baseball cap with a brim curled just a certain way. No-one said anything to me. They didn’t have to. They seemed to know innately that the stare communicated their message.
I felt the message deep in my bones; it was visceral. And not unfamiliar. In earlier months only blocks from that parking lot, young white men sent more explicit messages. On one occasion a carload of baseball-capped young men cruised by hanging out of a car and yelling racial insults at my wife and me. And on another occasion similarly dressed young white men drove by pointing gun-shooting gestures at me.
The intimidation is real, although its effectiveness on me varies according to my mood. Most times it is unsettling but not enough to alter any actions I already had in mind. These guys INTEND to be threatening to me. And I identify them ahead of time by that baseball cap they wear and by the area of town I happen to be in. For me, they are trouble-makers, marked by a number of factors topped off with the baseball cap.
Actually I bear no animosity toward the humble baseball cap. My white son sports a baseball cap with a Dr. Pepper logo. And some of my best friends wear baseball caps; some of those people are white young men from Franklin, Tennessee. People wear baseball caps for various reasons: Some as a fashion statement, some to show team or brand loyalty, some to keep the sun out of their eyes, some to cover up an embarrassing head or hair situation, and some because they play baseball. Folks wear their caps in various ways: Close to the head, sitting atop, backwards, side ways, or slightly askance. Baseball cap wearers come in varied sizes, shapes, ages, colors, and genders. It would be wrong for me to assume that every baseball cap wearing person is somehow dangerous to me.
Despite my history, it would be ridiculous for me to believe that their baseball caps MAKE people trouble-makers or that those caps are symbolic of trouble or even that I should somehow be confused about whether their baseball cap makes them dangerous. A focus on the skin color of the cap-wearer or on a particular area of town does nothing to change the picture. Objectively these guys are no more dangerous to me because they are young white guys wearing baseball caps in this area of Franklin. But as an isolated black man on this turf while groups of baseball-capped guys stare me down, I have reason to feel threatened.
Now what if one of those guys was walking in my multicultural neighborhood with a curled rim baseball cap? I’d feel no twinge of threat. My bones don’t recognize a generic baseball-capped young white guy as someone to fear, someone to pursue. If I did feel threatened by a random baseball-capped young white man in my neighborhood, and if I were a neighborhood watch captain, I would call the police. I would follow their advice.
And if that baseball cap-donned young white man came from behind me and attacked me and I knew I was carrying a semi-automatic weapon, he’d probably still be alive.