It was an otherwise ordinary snow day in Hartford, Connecticut, and I was laughing as I headed outside to shovel my driveway. I’d spent the morning scrambling around, trying to stay ahead of my three children’s rising housebound energy, and once my shovel hit the snow, I thought about how my wife had been urging me to buy a snowblower. I hadn’t felt an urgent need. Whenever it got ridiculously blizzard-like, I hired a snow removal service. And on many occasions, I came outside to find that our next door neighbor had already cleared my driveway for me.
Never mind that our neighbor was an empty-nester in his late 60s with a replaced hip, and I was a former professional ballplayer in his early 40s. I kept telling myself I had to permanently flip the script and clear his driveway. But not today. I had to focus on making sure we could get our car out for school the next morning. My wife was at a Black History Month event with our older two kids. The snow had finally stopped coming down and this was my mid-afternoon window of opportunity.
Just as I was good-naturedly turning all this over in my mind, my smile disappeared.
A police officer from West Hartford had pulled up across the street, exited his vehicle, and begun walking in my direction. I noted the strangeness of his being in Hartford—an entirely separate town with its own police force—so I thought he needed help. He approached me with purpose, and then, without any introduction or explanation he asked, “So, you trying to make a few extra bucks, shoveling people’s driveways around here?”
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.
Our next door neighbor (the one with the snowblower) helped my wife and me sort out the facts and figure out our options. He has a legal resume that covers a wide range of jurisprudence, from parking authorities to boards of African American–centric charter schools. He was in our living room within an hour.
The first step was to articulate exactly what the West Hartford officer had done. He'd been outside his jurisdiction—the representative from internal affairs had confirmed this. That meant a police officer from another town had come to my house, approached me while I was shoveling my own driveway, and—without any introduction—asked me a very presumptuous question.
All of this had put me in an extremely vulnerable situation. In one moment, I went from being an ordinary father and husband, carrying out a simple household chore, to a suspect offering a defense. The inquiry had forced me to check my tone, to avoid sounding smug even when I was stating the obvious: that I was shoveling the driveway because the house belonged to me.
Many people I spoke with brought up Henry Louis Gates, the noted Harvard scholar who was arrested for breaking into his own home. If I hadn’t been careful and deferential—if I’d expressed any kind of justifiable outrage—I couldn’t have been sure of the officer’s next question, or his next move. But the problem went even deeper than that. I found myself thinking of the many times I had hired a man who looked like me to shovel my driveway. Would the officer have been any more justified in questioning that man without offering an explanation? I also couldn’t help projecting into the future and imagining my son as a teenager, shoveling our driveway in my place. How could I be sure he would have responded to the officer in the same conciliatory way?
As offended as I’d been, the worst part was trying to explain the incident to my kids. When I called my wife to tell her what had happened, she was on her way home from the Black History Month event, and my son heard her end of the conversation. Right away, he wanted to know whether I’d been arrested. My 4-year-old daughter couldn’t understand why a police officer would “hurt Daddy’s feelings.” I didn’t want to make my children fear the police. I also wasn’t ready to talk to them about stop-and-frisk policies, or the value judgments people put on race.
Until that moment, skin colors had been little more than adjectives to my kids. Some members of our family have bronze or latte skin; others are caramel-colored or dark brown. Our eldest and “lightest-skinned” daughter had at times matter-of-factly described her brother and me as “brown” and herself as “white.” But that night, my wife made it painfully simple. “We are black,” she explained. “All of us.”
After getting legal advice from my neighbor and my wife, I ruled out any immediate action. In fact, I was hesitant to impulsively share my story with anyone I knew, let alone my media friends at ESPN or The New York Times. I hoped to have a meaningful, productive conversation with West Hartford leaders—something that might be hard to achieve if my story turned into a high-profile controversy. Instead, I asked my neighbor to help me arrange a meeting with the West Hartford officials. When I arrived at Town Hall, I was flanked by my neighbor and my wife. They came as supporters, but it helped that they were also attorneys.
I soon learned that West Hartford had an ordinance that prohibits door-to-door solicitation. A man whom I allegedly resembled had broken this ordinance. Someone in West Hartford had called the police, and a young officer, believing he was doing his duty, had pursued the complaint to my street. Our block would have been the first stop for the wayward shoveler if he had entered Hartford.
Right away, I noted that the whole thing had been a lot of effort over shoveling. The West Hartford ordinance allowed its residents to call in violations at their own discretion—in effect, letting them decide who belonged in the neighborhood and who did not. That was a problem in itself, but it also put the police in a challenging position. They had to find a way to enforce the problem in a racially neutral way, even if they were receiving complaints only on a small subsection of violators. In my case, the officer had not only spoken to me without respect but had crossed over into a city where West Hartford’s ordinance didn’t even apply.
But as we spoke, I found myself thinking of the people who have to deal with far more extreme versions of racial profiling on a regular basis and don’t have the ability to convene meetings at Town Hall. As an article in the April issue of The Atlantic points out, these practices have “side effects.” They may help police find illegal drugs and guns, but they also disenfranchise untold numbers of people, making them feel like suspects … all of the time.
In reaching out for understanding, I learned that there is a monumental wall separating these towns. It is built with the bricks of policy, barbed by racially charged anecdotes, and cemented by a fierce suburban protectionism that works to safeguard a certain way of life. The mayor of West Hartford assured me that he championed efforts to diversify his town, and the chief of police told me he is active in Connecticut’s statewide Racial and Ethnic Disparity Commission in the Criminal Justice System. (He later published a response to this article in The Hartford Courant.) I hope their continued efforts can help traverse this class- and race-based barrier, which unfortunately grows even more impenetrable with experiences such as mine.
When my mother heard the story of the West Hartford policeman, she responded with wry humor: “You got your come-uppance again.” I knew exactly what she meant. If you are the president, or a retired professional athlete, it can be all too easy to feel protected from everyday indignities. But America doesn’t let any of us deny our connection to the black “everyman.” And unfortunately that connection, which should be a welcome one, can be forced upon us in a way that undermines our self-esteem, our collective responsibility, and our sense of family and history.
In a sense, the shoveling incident was a painful reminder of something I’ve always known: My biggest challenge as a father will be to help my kids navigate a world where being black is both a source of pride and a reason for caution. I want them to have respect for the police, but also a healthy fear—at least as long as racial profiling continues to be an element of law enforcement. But I also want them to go into the world with a firm sense of their own self-worth.
After talking to my own mother, I found myself thinking back to something that happened at summer camp when I was 5 years old, my son’s age now. During one exercise, we were asked to form a circle, and the boy next to me recoiled, saying, “I don’t hold hands with darkies!” I could have felt humiliated, but I just shrugged the whole thing off. It seemed obvious that he had the problem, not me.
My parents had instilled this confidence in me since birth. They’d given me pride in my ancestry and raised me in Teaneck, New Jersey, a diverse community whose school district was the first in the nation to voluntarily integrate. I’d grown up seeing all kinds of people treat each other with a respect that transcended race, religion, class, and every other social or demographic construct.
That upbringing is what enabled me to deal with this incident in a slow, communicative, and methodical way. And it now allows me to see the potential in the officer who approached me. He’s still young, and one day he could become a leading advocate for unbiased policing practices. But I wish he would sit down with my kids and answer their questions. That might help him understand how hard it is to be a father—let alone a father in a black family. And I’d like him to know how much my children—and all children—expect from the officers trained to protect them. At the end of all my conversations with my kids, there were many things they still didn’t understand. But my 5-year-old son reassured me: “That’s okay, Dad. I still want to be a police officer.”