Today, June 10th 2020, black academic scientists are holding a strike in solidarity with Black Lives Matter protests. I strike with them and for them. This is why:

I began to understand the enormity of racism against blacks thirty five years ago when I was 12 years old. A single event, in which I witnessed a black man pleading for his life, opened my eyes. I don’t remember his face but I do remember looking at his dilapidated brown pants and noticing his hands shaking around the outside of his pockets while he plead for mercy:

“Please baas, please baas, … ”

The year was 1985, and I was visiting my friend Tamir Orbach at his house in Pretoria Tshwane, South Africa, located in Muckleneuk hill. We were playing in the courtyard next to Tamir’s garage, which was adjacent to a retaining wall and a wide gate. Google Satellite now enables virtual visits to anywhere in the world, and it took me seconds to find the house. The courtyard and retaining wall look the same. The gate we were playing in front of has changed color from white to black:

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The house was located at the bottom of a short cul de sac on the slope of a hill. It’s difficult to see from the aerial photo, but in the street view, looking down, the steep driveway is visible. The driveway stones are the same as they were the last time I was at the house in the 1980s:

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We heard some commotion at the top of the driveway. I don’t remember what we were doing at that moment, but I do remember seeing a man sprinting down the hill towards us. I remember being afraid of him. I was afraid of black men. A police officer was chasing him, gun in hand, shouting at the top of his lungs. The man ran into the neighboring property, scaled a wall to leap onto a roof, only to realize he may be trapped. He jumped back onto the driveway, dodged the cop, and and ran back up the hill. I remember thinking that I had never seen a man run so fast. The policeman, by now out of breath but still behind the man, chased close behind with his gun swinging around wildly.

There was a second police officer, who was now visible standing at the top of the driveway, feet apart, and pointing a gun down at the man. We were in the line of fire, albeit quite far away behind the gate. The sprint ended abruptly when the man realized he had, in fact, been trapped. Tamir and I had been standing, frozen in place, watching the events unfold in front of us. Meanwhile the screaming had drawn one of our parents out of the house, concerned about the commotion and asking us what was going on. We walked, together, up the driveway to the street.

The man was being arrested next to a yellow police pickup truck, a staple of South African police at the time and an emblem of police brutality. The police pickup trucks had what was essentially a small jail cell mounted on the flat bed, and they were literal pick up trucks; their purpose was to pick up blacks off the streets.

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Dogs were barking loudly in the back of the pickup truck and the man was sobbing.

“Please baas, not the dogs. Not the dogs. Please baas. Please baas…”

The police were yelling at the man.

“Your passbook no good!! No pass!! Your passbook!! You’re going in with the dogs and coming with us!”

“Please… please… ” the man begged. I remember him crying. He was terrified of the dogs. They had started barking so loudly and aggressively that the vehicle was shaking. The man kept repeating “Please… not with the dogs… please… they will kill me. Please… help me. Please… the dogs will kill me.”

He was pleading for his life.


Law

The passbook the police were yelling about was a sort of domestic or internal passport all black people over the age of 16 were required to carry at all times in white areas. South Africa, in 1985, was a country that was racially divided. Some cities were for whites only. Some only for blacks. “Coloureds”, who were defined as individuals of mixed ancestry, were restricted to cities of their own. In his book “Born a Crime“, Trevor Noah describes how these anti-miscegenation laws resulted in it being impossible for him to legally live with his mother when he was a child. Note that Mississippi removed anti-miscegenation laws from its state constitution only in 1987 and Alabama in 2000.

The South African passbook requirement stemmed from a law passed in 1952, with origins dating back to British policies from the 18th century. The law had the following stipulation:

No black person could stay in a white urban area for more than 72 hours unless explicit permission was granted by an employer (required to be white).

The passbook contained behavioral evaluations from employers. Permission to enter an area could be revoked by any government employee for any reason.

All the live-in maids (as they were called) in Pretoria had passbooks permitting them to live (usually in an outhouse) on the property of their “employer”. I put “employer” in quotes because at best they would earn $250 a month (in todays $ adjusted for inflation) would sleep in a small shack outside of a large home, and receive a small budget for food which would barely cover millie pap. In many cases they lived in outhouses without running water, were abused, beaten and raped. Live-in-maids spent months at a time apart from their children and families- they couldn’t leave their jobs for fear of being fired and/or losing their pass permission. Their families couldn’t visit them as they did not have permission, by pass laws, to enter the white areas in which the live-in-maids worked.

Most males had passbooks allowing them only day trips into the city from the black townships in which they lived. Many lived in Mamelodi, a township 15 miles east of Tswhane, and would travel hours to and from work because they were not allowed on white public transport. I lived in Pretoria for 13 years and I never saw Mamelodi.

I may have heard about passbooks before the incident at Tamir’s house, but I didn’t know what they were or how they worked. Learning about pass laws was not part of our social studies or history curriculum. At my high school, Pretoria Boys High School, a Milner school which counts among its alumni individuals such as dilettante Elon Musk and murderer Oscar Pistorius, we learned about the history of South Africa’s white architects, people like Cecil Rhodes (may his name and his memory be erased). There was one black boy in the school when I was there (out of about 1,200 students). He was allowed to attend because he was the son of an ambassador, as if somehow that mitigated his blackness.

South Africa started abandoning its pass laws in 1986, just a few months after the incident I described above. Helen Suzman described it at the time as possibly one of the most eminent government reforms ever enacted. Still, although this was a small step towards dismantling apartheid, Nelson Mandela was still in jail, in Pollsmoor Prison at that time, and he remained imprisoned for 3 more years until he was released from captivity after 27 years in 1990.

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Order

We did not stand by idly while the man was being arrested. We asked the police to let him go, or at least to not throw him in with the dogs, but the cops ignored us and dragged the man towards the back of the van. The phrase “kicking and screaming” is bantered about a lot; there is even a sports comedy with that title. That day I saw a man literally kicking and screaming for his life. The back doors of the van were opened and the dogs, tugging against their leash, appeared to be ready to devour him whole. He was tossed inside like a piece of meat.

The ferocity of the police dogs I saw that day was not a coincidence or accident, it was by design. South Africa, at one time, developed a breeding program at Roodeplaat Breeding Enterprises led by German geneticist Peter Geertshen to create a wolf-dog hybrid. Dogs were bred for their aggression and strength. The South African Boerboel is today one of the most powerful dog breeds in the world, and regularly kills in the United States, where it is imported from South Africa.

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After encounters with numerous Boerboels, Dobermans, Rottweilers and Pitbull dogs as a child in South Africa I am scared of dogs to this day. I know it’s not rational, and some of my best friends and family have dogs that I adore and love, but the fear lingers. Sometimes I come across a K-9 unit and the terror surfaces. Police dogs are potent police weapons here, today, just as they were in South Africa in the 1980s. There is a long history of this here. Dogs were used to terrorize blacks in the Civil Rights era, and the recent invocation of “vicious dogs” by the president of the United States conjures up centuries of racial terror:

I learned at age 12 that LAW & ORDER isn’t all it’s hyped up to be.


Academia

I immigrated to America in August 1988, and imagined that here I would find a land free of the suffocating racism of South Africa. In my South African high school racism was open, accepted and embraced. Nigg*r balls were sold in the campus cafeteria (black licorice balls), and students would tell idiotic “jokes”  in which dead blacks were frequently the punchline. Some of the teachers were radically racist. My German teacher, Frau Webber, once told me and Tamir that she would swallow her pride and agree to teach us despite the fact that we were Jews. But much more pernicious was the systemic, underlying, racism. When I grew up the idea that someday I would go to university and study alongside a black person just seemed preposterous. My friends and I would talk about girls. The idea that any of us would ever date, let alone marry an African girl, was just completely and totally out of the realm of possibility. While my school, teachers and friends were what one would consider “liberal” in South Africa, e.g. many supported the ANC, their support of blacks was largely restricted to the right to vote.

Sadly, America was not the utopia I imagined. In 1989, a year after I immigrated here, Yusef Hawkins was murdered in a hate crime by white youths who thought he was dating a white woman. That was also the year of the “Central Park Five“, in which Trump played a central, disgraceful and racist role. I finished high school in Palo Alto, across a highway from East Palo Alto, and the difference between the cities seemed almost as stark as between the white and black neighborhoods in South Africa. I learned later that this was the result of redlining. My classmates and teachers in Palo Alto were obsessed, in 1989, with the injustices in South Africa. but never once discussed East Palo Alto with me or with each other. I was practicing for the SAT exams at the time and remember thinking Palo Alto : East Palo Alto = Pretoria : Mamelodi.

Three years after that, when I was an undergraduate student studying at Caltech in Los Angeles, the Rodney King beating happened. I saw a black man severely beaten on television in what looked like a clip borrowed from South Africa. My classmates at the time thought it would be exciting to drive to South Central Los Angeles to see the “rioters” up close. They had never visited those areas before,  nor did they return afterwards. I was reminded at the time of the poverty tourism my friends in South Africa would partake in: a tour to Soweto accompanied by guides with guns to see for oneself how blacks lived. Then right back home for a braai (BBQ). My classmates came back from their Rodney King tour excitedly telling stories of violence and dystopia. Then they partied into the night.

I thought about my only classmate, one out of 200, who was actually from South Los Angeles and about the dissonance that was his life and my classmates’ partying.

Now I am a professor, and I am frequently present in discussions on issues such as undergraduate and graduate admissions, and hiring. Faculty talk a lot, sometimes seemingly endlessly, about diversity, representation, gender balance, and so forth and so on. But I’ve been in academia for 20+ years and it was only three years ago, after moving to Caltech, that I attended a faculty meeting with a black person for the first time. Sometimes I look around during faculty meetings and wonder if I am in America or South Africa? How can I tell?


Racism

Today is an opportunity for academics to reflect on the murder of George Floyd, and to ask difficult questions of themselves. It’s not for me to say what all the questions are or ought to be. I will say this: at a time when everything is unprecedented (Trump’s tweets, the climate, the stock market, the pandemic, etc. etc.) the murder of George Floyd was completely precedented. His words. The mode of murder. The aftermath. It has happened many times before, including recently. And so it is in academia. The fundamental racism, the idea that black students, staff, and faculty, are not truly as capable as whites, it’s simply a day-to-day reality in academia, despite all the talk and rhetoric to the contrary. Did any academics, upon hearing of the murder of George Floyd, worry immediately that it was one of their colleagues, George Floyd, Ph.D., working at the University of Minnesota who was killed?

I will take the time today to read. I will pick up Long Walk to Freedom, and I will also read #BlackintheIvory. I may read some Alan Paton. I will pause to think about how my university can work to improve the recruitment, mentoring, and experience of black students, staff and faculty. Just some ideas.

All these years since leaving South Africa I’ve had a recurring dream. I fly around Pretoria. The sun has just set and the Union Buildings are lit up, glowing a beautiful orange in the distance. The city is empty. My friends are not there. The man I saw pleading for his life in 1985 is gone. I wonder what the police did to him when he arrived at the police station. I wonder whether he died there, like many blacks at the time did. I fly nervously, trying to remember whether I have my passbook on me. I remember I’m classified white and I don’t need a passbook. I hear dogs barking and wonder where they are, because the city is empty. I wonder what it will feel like when they eat me, and then I remember I’m white and I’m not their target. I hope that I don’t encounter them anyway, and I realize what a privilege it is to be able to fly where they can’t reach me. Then I notice that I’m slowly falling, and barely clearing the slopes of Muckleneuk hill. I realize I will land and am happy about that. I slowly halt my run as my feet gently touch the ground.

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