To my mother, I am a son. To my wife, I am a husband. To my daughter and son, I am a father. But on the streets of the city or in the suburbs, in police terms, I'm a "Number 1 Male" -- a black man, considered by a significant segment of the white community as a faceless threat to life, limb and property.
If you are a black man in this country, you are never allowed to forget it. Never.
It makes no difference what level of education you have attained, what your profession is, how much money you earn each week, where you live or how much money you have in the bank. A generation removed from the Civil Rights era, in the eyes of far too many whites, I, as a black man, might as well be Willie Horton.
Every so often, as a black man, a "Number 1 Male," you get a reality check. Last Wednesday, I received my latest.
It happened at the Ponderosa restaurant in downtown Bel Air, across the street from the office where I had reported on county government for 3 1/2 years.
I had taken my wife, Zeinab, my six-year-old daughter, Samsam and my 16-month-old son, Hassan, to lunch about noon. I was dressed casually in slacks, shirt and a jacket. There was nothing remarkable about the meal, until I went to the salad bar to fill my plate.
As I was walking back to my booth, I noticed a young white man with thick red hair and glasses, dressed in a blazer, tie and slacks looking at me suspiciously. I later discovered that he was a county detective. When I passed near him, he said, "Hi." I greeted him in kind.
Almost immediately after we exchanged greetings, he asked me: "Are you Dennis?"
I replied, "No," then walked back to my table. I simply thought that it was a case of mistaken identity. It wouldn't be the first time I had been taken for someone else.
In fact, many black people have grown accustomed to being mistaken for someone else by white people, especially in areas, like Harford County, where few black people live. I have been mistaken for Evening Sun columnist Wiley Hall III, a good friend of mine, on at least a dozen occasions. My grandfather and father had to endure these kinds of indignities from some ignorant white people.
When I got back to our booth, I was joking with my wife about this case of mistaken identity. I asked her if I looked like a "Dennis" or a "Steve." My wife, who has never liked the surname I took legally when I became a Muslim in 1978, said that I looked more like a "Joe."
Before we continued, three large, uniformed white sheriff's deputies, who had also been eating at the restaurant, walked over to our booth and stopped directly in front of us. Although I had covered the sheriff's department for more than three years, and knew many of the deputies personally, I did not recognize any of them. They had effectively blocked us in.
One of the deputies turned to me and asked me: "Are you Dennis?" A little bemused, I replied that I was not. Then he asked me again: "Are you Dennis Moore?" Again, I replied that I was not. Then, I became concerned.
The deputy then requested that I show him my identification. I started to explain that I thought I had left my wallet in the car. The deputy told me they had an outstanding arrest warrant for one Dennis Moore and that if I could not produce an identification that I might have to accompany them back to the Sheriff's Department headquarters on Main Street.
I forcefully told the deputies my name and explained that I was a reporter for The Baltimore Sun and had, until recently, been covering the county as the paper's bureau chief. I told them that I knew Sheriff Robert Comes and his predecessor, Dominic Mele, and had covered their campaigns. I also told them that if they needed an identification that they could ask Dr. Carl Klockars, a University of Delaware consultant working with the police research project with the county government, who was eating at the rear of the restaurant.
That was enough to convince them. We all ended up joking about the whole incident. One of them told me that I did, in fact, look like the man they had been looking for. Their tone was never threatening to me. It was, in fact, polite and business-like. During my tenure in Harford County, I have grown to respect the professionalism of the deputies and have come to know and like many of them personally.
Those feelings aside, I just couldn't get this incident out of my mind. After we finished eating, I drove my family a few blocks up Main Street to the Sheriff's Department headquarters and went into the public information office and requested a photo and description of my supposed doppelganger, Dennis Moore.
When I saw the picture of Mr. Moore, an escapee from the Harford County Detention Center, I had to laugh about our
so-called resemblance. We had different eyes, different features, different shaped heads and he was much darker than I am. The only thing we had in common is that we are black. No more, no less.