My white guilt died on Good Friday, April 6, 2012. That was the day my bike got stolen.
I was at the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., for the Stations of the Cross — the pre-Easter Catholic ritual of recounting the events that happened to Jesus on his way to crucifixion.
It was a beautiful and sunny day, and I planned to ride my bike around the city. The bike, a sharp silver-blue hybrid from L.L. Bean, was only a year old, but had already taken on great literal and symbolic significance for me. In 2008 I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, and the chemotherapy caused some nerve damage. The doctor says it will slowly go away but exercise will be a big help.
I bought a bike, and it quickly became a source of joy — and efficiency. D.C. is a car-heavy city, and the bike made getting around it a breeze. I could park on Capitol Hill, coast down Independence Avenue and take in the museums and cherry blossoms in a couple hours. The bike was a sign of strength, of determination. Of recovery. When a friend of mine, a social worker, expressed surprise that the entire time of my treatment I had never gone on disability, I couldn’t believe she would even think that I would do such a thing. One magical early spring night I rode through about half the city, going to rock clubs, coffee shops and museums, ending up on the lit hilltop at Georgetown University. Disability? Wrong answer.
But when I came back to my car after the stations, my bike, which had been locked to a bike rack on my car, was gone. I called the cops and filed a report. Then I walked around Brookland, the neighborhood around the Shrine, for an hour to see if I could spot it. I didn’t, but I did talk to some people who said there were a lot of kids around that day because the schools are out.
I went to college at Catholic University, which is right next to the National Shrine, and I know Brookland pretty well. It’s home to several Catholic religious orders (Brookland was once known as “Little Rome”). I could be pretty certain that on Good Friday a member of the Little Sisters of the Poor, which is across the street from where I was parked, had not nicked my bike. Neither had the monks at the Dominican House of Studies on the corner. The students at Catholic University were on Easter break. That left the neighborhoods around the university. Since the time I was an undergrad at Catholic University in the 1980s, most of the crime that has occurred on campus has come from those neighborhoods, which are predominately black. As sure as it took the D.C. cops forever to get to the parking lot to file a report, I knew that the odds were very high that a black person had taken my bike — maybe one of the kids that had been described.
When I got home I vented to my friends. I told them I was going to scour those neighborhoods until I found the bike. In reply, a liberal friend gave me a lecture about profiling and told me to just forget about the bike. “That person needs our prayers and help,” she said. “They haven’t had the advantages we have.”
That’s when I lost it. I had been carefully educated by liberal parents that we are all, black and white, the same. My favorite movie growing up was “In the Heat of the Night.” Yet that often meant not treating everyone the same. It meant treating blacks with a mixture of patronizing condescension and obsequious genuflecting to their Absolute Moral Authority gained from centuries of suffering. It meant not treating everyone the same.
It meant leaving valuable things like a bike in a vulnerable position in a black part of town because you didn’t want to admit that the crime is worse in poor black neighborhoods.