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One day, I was in the Denver International Airport hanging out in the non-smoking area.  I had a little time before my flight, so I decided to do what anyone would do in a non-smoking area:  I lit up a cigarette.

As you might expect, my puffs got the attention of overzealous airport security.  Many of them obviously attended the “George Zimmerman School of Black Male Oppression,” so I wasn’t surprised when they asked me to put my cigarette out.  But there was something about this injustice that absolutely infuriated me.

Fuming over the fact that I wasn’t allowed to break the rules of the airport (after all, being Dr. Boyce Watkins should come with privileges, right?), I decided to exact my revenge.   So, I “suddenly realized” that it was too hot to be wearing my Puma sweat suit and Kangol, so I stripped them right off of my body.  I then realized that even my boxer shorts and socks were too much to bear, so I got rid of those too.

After a little more time spent “droppin it like it’s hot,” there I was, proudly displaying (what I believe to be) my most beautiful and significant body parts to the world, sporting what God gave me to anyone who happened to be passing by.  I’m sure the ladies were impressed.

After stripping myself down to the “good stuff,” I then noticed that I was about to miss my flight.  So, holding all significant body parts in place, I sprinted butt-naked through airport security with my boarding pass and ID in my free hand.  After all, I didn’t want to get in trouble for forgetting my essentials.

You can imagine my shock and dismay as the terminal agents stared me down like I had a hole in my head.  I was absolutely appalled by their blatant racial profiling, for I was sure that they were only coming after me because I was black.  As one of the agents approached and tackled me to the floor, I started to think that perhaps I’d done something wrong.

After being tackled, I was handcuffed, humiliated and thrown in the back of a police car.  I write this article as I await trial for a long list of charges, starting with some obscure FAA rule against running through the airport naked.  Given our nation’s shift in civil liberties since 9/11, I’m sure that at least one of these charges comes with indefinite detention and a possible death penalty.

That’s the end of my story, but before I move on, I have a confession to make:  I actually made the entire thing up (yes, I can see the shock in your face).  But some of this actually did happen to a woman in the Denver International airport this week.  After being asked to put out her cigarette by an official, she responded in full rebellious fashion, by stripping herself nude and trying to go through airport security.

Unlike the scene I described above, the woman wasn’t tackled and taken away in handcuffs.  In fact, she doesn’t even face charges.  Instead, she was taken to the hospital for psychiatric evaluation.

“Hmmmm, very interesting,” I thought.  “I bet that wouldn’t happen if she were a ‘brotha.’”

Welcome to the world of white privilege.  In this world, devious criminal activity is likely to be treated with empathy and compassion, giving the offender another chance to ruin his/her life at a later date.  African Americans, on the other hand, rarely have their criminal offenses treated in the same way.  Most of the juvenile offenders sentenced to life in prison without parole (nearly all of whom are Black or Latino) were victims of serious abuse before they committed their crimes.  But they are rarely sentenced to simple psychiatric evaluation, and instead are sent straight to prison.

Beyond those who commit more serious crimes, anyone with experience in the justice system fully understands why African Americans have little reason to trust the courts or police.  The case of Trayvon Martin, for example, is one in which even as the victim of a crime, Trayvon’s family didn’t receive an ounce of the respect he would have received had they been white.

White privilege must be critically assessed and challenged in all available venues.  Disparities in arrests, convictions and sentencing must be taken seriously, and the system should not be allowed to continue to ruin so many black families across America.  Also, sentences for drug abuse and similar activity should be treated with the same compassion that Denver police gave that naked white woman in the airport.  The fact is that most of us have a story, and we can’t just hear the story if the perpetrator happens to be white.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and founder of the Your Black World Coalition. To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here

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