Rule 1: If your skin comes within two dozen shades of looking blue in the moonlight, don’t run at night. Rule 2: If your schedule demands it, be careful.
If Marine veteran-cum-lawyer David Lee Phillips wasn’t familiar with those rules before an officer stopped him while he was running at night back in 2010, he was by the time six more arrived as backup and threatened to use a Taser on him. After all, not only was Phillips carrying a golf club (which he had long since put down) in case he ran into any of the neighborhood’s stray dogs, but he had the nerve to ask for probable cause when they demanded to search him.
I, however, wasn’t familiar with such laws until my first holiday leave. I called my grandmother the night before, and as soon as I mentioned looking forward to outstripping some issues on a roadside by Louisiana starlight, she was warning me to “watch myself out there” when I came. When I brought it up later in the unofficial barracks barbershop, every brother in the unit joked about me getting jumped in “Hicktown.” I realized then that not a single black runner I’d ever met hasn’t been followed.
Perversion of a black man’s attempt to take care of himself doesn’t come in the form of a pickup with floodlights and a Confederate flag. It comes, as it came for me last week, in the guise of a white woman suddenly easing off the gas, keeping 20 paces behind you and kicking on the high beams so you can’t see her face—not that I needed to.
When sociologist Rashawn Ray conducted a nationwide survey on why black people exercise less than their white counterparts, he found that it’s worry that keeps us inactive. Black women are less likely to run in black neighborhoods for fear of being sexualized, harassed and assaulted. As a participant in one survey noted, “You want to make sure you get home safe, and not be fighting off the two-legged dogs and the four-legged ones.”
Black men—who Ray found to be less likely to exercise in white public spaces—worry about the implicit-bias equation: Melanin plus movement in white space equals a “thug.” Any black man who’s exercised outside implicitly knows this. I knew it when I roomed with a white female divorcee in Illinois and felt prying eyes every time I did boxing drills in the backyard. I know it when I run. I may be caramel, but caramel with an arm tattoo is black enough for worry to candy-coat accusation—as it did last week when, after 30 minutes of being followed, I confronted the woman.
“Why the hell are you following me?!” I said.
“What are you running from?” she said.
Even before I heard her voice, I figured who she was: probably late 30s—a churchgoing, maternalistic liberal who thinks black people would be better off if their mothers stressed proper English and they listened to music with more positive values.
“Nothing,” I said.
“Bullshit. You’re running from something,” she said.
It was the same innocuous accusation by which Corey Dickerson was almost arrested for running at night—before another officer intervened—when Officer of the Year nominee Kenneth Price wanted to know, “Where you been running from?” It was the same assumption that led an officer in Texas to be a dick while detaining a teen running toward the area of a recent robbery: stretching the description, threatening to “light his ass up” and refusing to give his badge number.
To the woman who had been following me, I replied, “Yeah, my sergeant, if I don’t stay in shape.” I deflected, lying about still being in the military.
“Uh-huh. You’re running from something, out here this late at night. ... The police are on their way,” she said.
“Great! We can all talk about you following me for 30 minutes—harassing a black man, who just turned and went Back. Down. The Same. Road. on the assumption that he’s running from something,” I said.
I was confident she said the new age word for “nigger” as she peeled off, but it doesn’t matter. Either way, I was well-reminded that at 1 a.m., I was violating white space. After all, I should’ve known the rules for being able to attend to my health—for running while black. If you run—especially at night—you should, too.
Rule 3: If you’re a black single mother, do you have time to be worrying about your health? Rule 4: If you’re a black single woman, cover up, because skin turns to “Skank,” “Baby” and “Bitch, so you just gonna ignore me?!” that much faster. Rule 5: Just run in upscale white neighborhoods.
“Black men,” meanwhile, according to sociologist Ray, “have to go through a signaling process, particularly middle-class black men, when they try to be physically active outside.” Translation: Carry ID. Jog in well-lit places. Run ahead of a partner, never behind—especially with women. Run with your white girlfriend, who thought “It’ll be fun to exercise together,” at your peril. Wear a fleece cap when it’s cold, never a hoodie.
Current or former military? Wear your physical-training uniform to deflect suspicion. College student? Ditto for collegiate wear. Let everyone know you’re the educated type. Where rural roads meet white subdivisions, be careful. And when someone assumes you’re a “thug,” be less of a confrontational smartass than me.