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Commentary: Lessons Learned in Downtown Los Angeles

As I walked [two weeks ago] along South Figueroa Street in downtown Los Angeles, my mind was fractured by a million disparate thoughts, most of them weighty matters only in my head. I was in Southern California for the annual convention of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and had several appointments on that beautiful day. In typical fashion, I was late for my first appointment and was oblivious to all around me.

“Excuse me. Could I ask you something?”

I heard the woman’s voice, but I didn’t see her. This isn’t uncommon; I live and work in downtown Washington, D.C. I’m approached by panhandlers several times a day during my commute or as I rush from place to place on the crowded city streets. Their friendly greetings are often a ruse to slow my roll long enough to ask for spare change to buy … who knows what they do with the money they bum off the kindhearted. Rarely do I break stride.

“Not today,” I said over my shoulder in the direction of the woman’s voice. “I don’t have anything.”

“Excuse me! I’m not homeless. Do I look homeless to you?”

The voice sounded firm, insistent, and commanding, forcing me to look at the person who owned it. I turned to face a bespectacled, brown-skinned woman. She wore a military green T-shirt with white letters that identified her with Chicago’s Westside NAACP. Her pink and green purse was large and expensive looking, marking her as a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. Clearly, if I’d paid attention, I’d have realized she wasn’t a homeless beggar.

“All I wanted was to ask if you’d stop long enough to take our picture?”

Huh? My second survey of the situation revealed a gaggle of teenagers were with her, all dressed in matching T-shirts that let me know they were in Los Angeles for the NAACP’s annual Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, better known as the ACT-SO competition. I’m familiar with the ACT-SO program, which encourages minority high school students to achieve in their studies. Top students are rewarded with a trip to strut their stuff during the opening activities at the NAACP annual convention.

So I should have known better. A wave of embarrassment washed over me, and I felt smaller than Tom Thumb. In my self-absorbed haste, not only had I mistaken a volunteer chaperone for a homeless beggar, but I’d rudely done so in front of her charges — an impressive group of inner-city kids, as they excitedly lined up to get a souvenir photo taken in front of the GRAMMY Museum.

After apologizing profusely, I snapped all the pictures the group wanted and then went on my shameful way. That might very well have been the end of this story and I might very well have banished the incident, embarrassing as it was, from my memory. But I didn’t.

I couldn’t because the woman and her ACT-SO team crossed my path repeatedly throughout that day. They were in the halls of the convention center. I saw them in the lobby of my hotel. At every turn, whenever I saw her or those kids, shame and embarrassment seeped from every pore in my skin.

Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore. When I next saw her, she was walking along the same street where we first met. This time I spoke to her first. I asked her to tell me her name and her story.

She reached into her purse and pulled out a leather wallet, flipping it open to show me a five-point badge. She grinned as she watched my face shatter with shock: Carolyn Hankins, the woman I once thought was a bag lady or worse, was a Chicago police detective. She told me she sometimes works undercover, masquerading as homeless, a hooker, or a drug addict, to catch criminals. In her spare time, she volunteers to mentor young Black kids, encouraging them to stay away from her professionally.

If I felt small before, I was now microscopic.

“People never guess what I do for a living unless I tell them,” Detective Hankins said, still smiling at me. “If you don’t take the time and pay attention, you’ll make the wrong assumptions about people. Even if you do, you might not know much about them.”

She’s right. I want to believe I’m better than I was on that Los Angeles street. I preach against succumbing to gross and unfair stereotypes, but I failed to practice it in that sorry moment.

Now, more than a week after first meeting Detective Hankins, I’m forced to reconsider the stories behind the mass of humanity that I routinely pass without pausing to consider their story — or at the very least, their human face. That’s a very good thing to do.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.

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