All of my homeowner confidence suddenly seemed like an illusion.
It would have been all too easy to play the “Do you know who I am?” game. My late father was an immigrant from Trinidad who enrolled at Howard University at age 31 and went on to become a psychiatrist. My mother was an important education reformer from the South. I graduated from an Ivy League school with an engineering degree, only to get selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball draft. I went on to play professionally for nearly 15 years, retiring into business then going on to write a book and a column for The New York Times. Today, I work at ESPN in another American dream job that lets me file my taxes under the description “baseball analyst.”
But I didn't mention any of this to the officer. I tried to take his question at face value, explaining that the Old Tudor house behind me was my own. The more I talked, the more senseless it seemed that I was even answering the question. But I knew I wouldn’t be smiling anymore that day.
After a few minutes, he headed back to his vehicle. He offered no apology, just an empty encouragement to enjoy my shoveling. And then he was gone.
When I moved my family to Connecticut, no relocation service, or anyone else we consulted for advice, ever mentioned Hartford as a viable option. They offered the usual suggestions for those who passed the prestige and wealth test—towns like West Hartford, Glastonbury, Avon, and Simsbury were presented as prime options. On one occasion, when I was preparing to announce a game, someone at our production meeting asked me where I lived. When I told him it was Hartford, he asked, “Really? Did you lose a bet?”
My family could have comfortably afforded a home in West Hartford. My wife is an attorney who graduated from two Ivy League schools. After getting her legal chops in the Philadelphia public defender’s office, she worked at the Chicago law firm where Barack Obama started his legal career. As we painstakingly considered where to live, my wife fielded off-putting warnings about Hartford from well-meaning friends: “You know what they say when you cross the line...”
But we settled on the capital city of Hartford for the cultural experience. Connecticut is one of the most polarized states in the country—as people simplistically put it, “poor black and brown cities surrounded by wealthy white suburbs.” Our decision was not based on the features advisors kept mentioning—shopping centers and malls, or nice homes and “good schools.” It was about a certain kind of civic responsibility and, quite frankly, about making sure our kids saw other people who looked like them.
Our street is one block from the West Hartford border, and our Hartford neighbors make up a sort of Who’s Who of political and legal leaders. The mayor lives behind us, the Connecticut governor’s house is up the street, and a state senator lives two doors down. As soon as I told my wife what had happened, she sent the senator a furious email under the subject line “Shoveling While Black”:
Doug just got detained by West Hartford Police in front of our house while shoveling our driveway, questioning him about asking to be paid for shoveling. The officer left when Doug told him that it was his house. There were several other people on our street out in front of their houses shoveling snow at the same time. None of them were stopped for questioning. Just wanted to vent to someone whom we know cares and would be equally outraged.
Before I could even digest what happened, my wife's email had set a machine in motion. A diverse swatch of Hartford influentials banded together to assess the situation, including the chief of police, local attorneys, and security officers from the neighborhood civic association. Within a couple of hours, I had outlined my version of events to the Hartford police department’s internal affairs department. Most told me that I just had to decide how far I wanted to take my complaint.