There’s a look that Black men of a certain age have. It is somewhat akin to the “thousand mile stare” of war veterans. It may be tinged with anything from sorrow to determination. It is usually accompanied by a silence that is usually best left uninterrupted, except by those who know what it holds back, know when the dam is about to burst, and know how to stop it from bursting in that particular man. Right then.
Anyone who knows that look, knows that stare, and knows that silence, knows that it holds back—and sometimes just barely—a tidal wave of anger and frustration. It is a look that says not only “I’m sick of this shit,” but “I’m sick of fighting this shit.” And it it most often worn by one who is—and has long been— waist deep in “this shit,” and fighting to get to the other side.
Joseph Beam captured the essence of it, and put his own spin on it, when he wrote:
I, too, know anger. My body contains as much anger as water. It is the material from which I have built my house; blood red bricks that cry in the rain. It is what pulls my tie and gold chains taut around my neck; fills my penny loafers and my Nikes; molds my Cavlins and gray flannels to my torso. It is the face and posture I show the world. It is the way, sometimes the only way, I am granted an audience.
My father had that look sometimes. I’ve seen it on the faces of other men in my family, as well as teacher, preachers, deacons, and just about anybody old enough to “remember when.” James Booker remembers when, and james Booker has that look.
He soon learned it wasn’t the only thing off limits to Georgia’s new black recruits.
Until 1976, black officers were blocked from joining a state-supported supplemental police retirement fund.
Today, white officers who entered the fund before that year are taking home hundreds of dollars more every month in retirement benefits than their black counterparts.
The now-retired black officers have been lobbying hard to change that, but eight years after they began an effort to amend the state constitution and give them credit for those lost years is stalled in the Legislature.
These days, when Georgia is on my mind, I’m often not very proud of it. This is another of those times.
My father’s stare, from what I gathered, went all the way back to his time as a sergeant in the Army, where he saw men he had trained get promoted—one after the other—over him. And each time, there was one major difference between them; the same difference that exists between James Booker and his fellow officers. Back then they could join the state-supported pension fund because they were white, and he could not because he was black. Now, they receive more pension than he does because they’re white and he’s black, just like it was back then.
What’s amazing, but not surprising, to me is that the state of Georgia is fighting to maintain this decades-old injustice.
The Georgia House has twice passed an amendment resolution but it has gone nowhere in the state Senate. An amendment requires a vote of two-thirds of each chamber as well as approval by voters.
“We can’t fix everything for everybody,” said state Sen. Bill Heath, chairman of the Senate Retirement Committee.
Heath, a Republican, argued that making retroactive changes to retirement benefits “opens up a can of worms and could destroy the pension system.”
“We can’t fix everything for everybody”? (And, no, Sen. Heath’s surname is not lost on me.)
How many different ways are there to read that statement?
That depends. But if you look at it through the eyes of James Booker and Georgia’s other retired Black policemen, you get some idea of how they read it.
Georgia’s first black officers, hired in the late 1940s, entered a segregated system rife with daily humiliations. They couldn’t arrest white offenders without a white officer present. They couldn’t change into uniforms at the station house — or wear their uniforms to work — forcing many to switch clothes in the locker room at the local black YMCA.
Some white officers ordered to partner with a black officer called in sick until they were reassigned.
Booker is 76 years old. After 30 years of service, he would be getting over $700 more per month in retirement. Instead, he is working part time, directing traffic to make ends meet. While the white officers who served with him, who even joined the force when he did, draw a bigger pension because their race allowed them to join the state fund at that time, and his race prohibited him from joining.
In Georgia, it seems, there time for justice is now always right now. In Georgia, there are some injustices so old, and that impact so few people, that they may be forgotten.
They may all be forgotten. It’s far more convenient. Sen. Heath’s weak excuse—”We can’t fix everything for everybody.—sounds almost like, “Look, we’ve done so many people wrong for so long that if we make it right for these people, we might have to make it right for everyone else. And we just can’t do that.”
Because we might never be able to stop? Maybe? Maybe.
So instead we just say to people, “Yes, we know you suffered an injustice. Yes, we know you continue to suffer the effect of that injustice. Live with it.”
And they will live with it. Until they die.
James Booker asked if the Georgia legislature was just waiting for him and the other retired policemen to die.
Perhaps. Perhaps they think that, in death, Booker and the other men will be finally be forgotten. Their voices, and their complaints, will finally be silenced. Maybe they will be silenced.
Maybe the Georgia state legislature doesn’t know it, but the stare that my father had, that James Booker has, and that so many black men of a certain age have is inherited. It keeps getting passed down. That’s why so many have it.