My friend Luis has to cancel Christmas this year because of racism.
Let that sink in for a moment.
I and my white privilege would never have even realized that this was a possibility in someone’s world. Until now.
Luis is a small business owner in my town and works harder than I have ever had to work in my privileged life. He drives 90 minutes from his home every day to run his business seven days a week. He runs a Mexican restaurant in my town, and my family has gotten to know his family over the past couple of years since we frequent his restaurant about once a week.
He always greets us with a smile and a handshake for everyone in the family, and when we leave, gives us all hugs. He and his staff know that I like black beans instead of refried, and fresh jalapenos instead of pickled. They know my usual order, and if I am craving something different, like shrimp tacos (which are not on the menu), he will make them for me without hesitation.
My son once asked Luis if they had milkshakes, and he did not—but the next time we came into the restaurant, Luis made my son a giant chocolate peanut butter shake and brought it over without asking. And now he always has the ingredients on hand, just in case.
Sometimes, if I am on a deadline for an article but also need to eat, I will head to Luis’ restaurant, because I know they have Wi-Fi, and they will let me sit in a corner booth and work—even offering to seat me in one with an outlet for my laptop. I did this once when there was a large party going on in the restaurant and Luis even offered to let me use his office so I would have a quiet place to work. I needed the white noise of the restaurant activity to help me focus, but that’s how generous this man is.
He chats with us about the state of his business, which has taken some hits once or twice. Namely, a year ago, when our new President was elected and Luis lost some of his best employees, who suddenly feared for their families’ well-being and left the country. The mariachi band that always came in on the weekends went back to Mexico. But because of Luis’ focus on exceptional service and great food, the restaurant continues to thrive.
On our most recent visit, though, he told us the holidays were going to be tough this year. He needed to go to the bank and withdraw the money that he was going to use for Christmas presents to pay a speeding ticket, instead.
One night about a month ago, after closing the restaurant, he was stopped for driving 90 miles an hour in a 75-mile-per-hour zone on the highway heading home. It was late at night—1:00 or 2:00 in the morning—and no one else was on the road at that late hour, but Luis admitted his wrongdoing. He cooperated with the officer who pulled him over and answered all questions politely, accepting responsibility for his speeding.
If you knew him personally, you would expect nothing less of him.
I don’t remember why, but Luis ended up going to court and faced the judge in this tiny town off the highway. He had to go to work that day, so he arrived two hours early—at 7:00 in the morning—just so his case would be heard first and he could hopefully still be able to get to the restaurant by 10:00 to prepare it for opening at 11:00.
However, even though he was the first to arrive, his case was not the first to be heard—nor the second, nor the third. While Luis was anxious to get to work, he waited patiently and listened to the other cases that were heard before him. The case right before his was of another speeding driver, who was going 75 miles per hour in a 25-mile-per-hour residential area. That driver was fined $100. That driver was white.
When it was finally his turn, Luis stood up to face the judge and the consequences of his actions. Luis admitted his wrongdoing, but as the judge lectured him, he told Luis that he wished he could put him in jail for Thanksgiving. And he didn’t just say it once. He said it four or five times. He was very clear on what he wanted to have happen to Luis, and wasn’t afraid to say it. Multiple times.
When Luis finally walked out of the mobile-home-type courthouse, he had been given a $1,000 fine. For speeding 15 miles an hour over the limit on a highway. When the driver before him was ticketed $100 for speeding 45 miles an hour over the speed limit in a residential area.
But that driver was white.
I don’t know why this story shocks me so much. I am not naïve about the racism that is rampant in our country. I have written about the hate rally that happened in Charlottesville, and about recognizing my own white privilege.
Maybe it’s because of the blatantly racist treatment Luis got from a judge. Someone who, by definition and his job description, is supposed to be fair and just while upholding the law.
Maybe because it’s become much more personal to me now that I have seen and heard this example of horrible behavior towards someone I know. Someone who works harder than I do every single day. Someone who is working towards citizenship—who actually wants to become an official citizen of this country even when we treat him like this, simply because his skin is a tiny bit darker than mine.
Or maybe it’s just because it’s Luis. A person I would describe as the epitome of a “good man”. A man who is going to make sure that he has presents for his two nephews, because he wants to make their Christmas magical, but has told everyone else in his family that he can’t afford to get presents for anyone else. And knows that Christmas isn’t about the presents, anyway.
Let me reiterate—Luis knows he was wrong for speeding. He never disputed that, and accepted responsibility for it completely. He simply wanted to be treated equally and receive a penalty that was fair.
The part of this story that really sticks with me, though? He’s obviously used to being treated like this. I felt more outrage just listening to his story than he seemed to feel actually experiencing it.
Because when he was done sharing the story, he said everything was good, and that he was looking forward to simply spending time with his family over the holidays.
And with a big smile on his face, he said, “I can’t complain.”
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