I knew just what to do. As I retrieve my university ID from my wallet, I start to record the incident on my phone. My previous experience from a false race-based call at George Washington University, where I had earned my law degree just last year had prepared me, and this time I was ready. I did not attribute my replayed perennial nightmare to African juju or to witches and wizards from the village, as West Africans do too easily.
The fact that after experiencing egregious racial profiling a year earlier after just a few weeks of earning my law degree, here I was experiencing almost a repeat—racial profiling just a few weeks after earning my degree from an Ivy League—confirmed what I had come to learn as a Black man: there is systemic racism in America. I have come to accept that I will continue to experience the inconvenience and othering of racial profiling.
“What are you doing here?” The brown-uniformed security had barked aggressively at me after barging into the store in the basement of John Jay Hall, as I took my turn to pick up my provisions in the student run food pantry.
The security guard was openly hostile as he confronted me. I was wearing gym clothes and plimsolls which is not uncommon in a university. But I was and I still am Black—which still remains stigmatized in predominantly white American universities.
I was the only Black person in the room and the presence of the bellicose guard alarmed the two women in the pantry with me—one of them who was volunteering had just informed me that she was a student from China. The other I knew—she was a student from England.
It was not my mask that sent the guard running helter-skelter into the pantry to try to apprehend me after apparently viewing me from the security monitor. We were all wearing masks, as was required by the Covid-19 rules. It was because I was a Black man, and the reflexive dehumanization of Blackness was triggered in the psyche of the security guard to act aggressively, to profile, to presume some wrongfulness and criminality in the presence of a Black man in white spaces.
As I was presenting my school ID, the hostile security guard barks an order instructing me to wait there and he would get reinforcement to remove me. He insisted that I should not be there. Although I did as instructed and waited for ten minutes, he never returned. While I decided not to report the incident, the Chinese student who had just witnessed a situation which apparently agitated her would escalate the matter.
To my surprise, I received an email from the chair and founder of the food pantry apologizing for the mistreatment:
I hope this email finds you well. On behalf of all of us at The Food Pantry at Columbia, I would like to apologize for the treatment you experienced at the hands of a Public Safety officer during your visit to the temporary pantry location at JJ’s Place yesterday.”
I was impressed that the chair had apologized to me, even before asking me to give my account of the unsavory event. I explained that I decided not to report the incident because I did not want the public safety officer to lose his job since he probably had a family to feed, more so in a pandemic. I was just happy that my colleagues at Columbia University had demonstrated enough empathy and proactiveness that they believed that I deserved to be treated with courtesy and decently like a human being. After all I had not received any decency from George Washington University, where I had experienced worse mistreatment from public safety.
Then I received a confirmation from the founder empathizing with me which even motivated me more. To my surprise, I learnt he was Black too.
“Believe me, as a Black man, I completely understand how you felt. I have been in a similar situation with Public Safety not too long ago. Luckily, the situation did not escalate, but I felt profiled based on my ethnicity.”
I just felt some kind of relief that there was someone like me saying he could relate with my experience, because he was like me and he experienced something similar. It prompted me to want to learn more about Michael Higgins and to know his story.
The co-founder and chair of The Food Pantry at Columbia University, Michael Higgins, was born in Camden, New Jersey where he lived for six years before moving to Washington Townships in South Jersey, growing up in an upper middle class, mostly white neighborhood. Michael’s mother was from Jamaica and a Nutrition and Dietetics Technician at a hospital providing dietary needs to patients, as she went to school at night. Throughout his life Michael had been one of just a couple of Black students in class in elementary, middle school, and high school and so this was normal for him. He acknowledges struggling to fit in.
However, he insists that while he grew up comfortably and found he had more accessibility growing up in an upper middle-class white neighborhood, every Black person in America has experienced a profiling or race issue with authorities.
“It happens so much it is numbing for me,” Michael states.
Higgins’ eye-opening race experience occurred after he’d gone off to Iowa State University in the ‘90s. Wanting a different experience, he’d moved to the Midwest to pursue accounting at Iowa State, but he would experience the first of his jarring racial encounters in the Ames community where there was brazen racism, while walking on campus with his African American roommate from Chicago.
A car had pulled up close and the passengers screamed, “Go back where you came from!”
This happened on his first night at the Ames campus.
He was shocked and remembers that even apart from that incident, he constantly felt scared and intimidated in the Ames community.
“There were no Black sororities or fraternities and the radio station favored whites, and dedicated only 3 hours to alternative music,” says Michael as he recalls a toxic school atmosphere being a Black man at Iowa State in the ‘90s.
Michael would only spend a year and a half at Iowa State University and returned to New Jersey to take care of his ailing mother. After his mother’s recovery, he realized he still wanted to complete his university degree. He had been a techie since he was a kid and had spent 15 years in the tech world. He got a job as systems coordinator for a small department in charge of all the technical positions at Columbia University. Because of his extensive tech background, he’d assumed his future was in computer science and felt fortunate to be accepted to complete his degree at Columbia University’s School of General Studies.
However, being a student at Columbia opened him up to opportunities he had never imagined, and a different way of seeing things—which reoriented his goals. An advisor’s words resonated, and he realized that he was indeed “more than what [he] came in with.”
Michael took a graduate course for credit, delving into the non-tech world. He soon realized he had other interests and decided to major in urban studies, specializing in geographic information systems.
It was while at Columbia that Michael found that he could fill a need where a lacuna existed. Columbia being the most expensive Ivy League did not have a food pantry that could provide free food to students who needed the service. Together with co-founder Raymond Curtis (Columbia class of 2018), they created the official food pantry at Columbia University.
Since its inception in 2016, The Food Pantry at Columbia is the only permanently student run and student-focused food bank in the Ivy League. (Brown has a standing pantry.)
The Food Pantry serves about 25 recipients per day; it delivers an average of about 20 to 30 dollars worth of food disbursements per individual a day to the Columbia University student community. They experienced a spike during the pandemic with about 500 recipients being served per month. Columbia University students from all the schools volunteer to make home deliveries.
The pandemic caused the pantry to automate in many ways, as students now had to place their orders online ahead of time using an assigned points-based system, as opposed to just showing up in the pantry and picking up provisions as they did before the Covid-19 mandated school restrictions. Leveraging technology using Google forms and Google sheets, and an ecommerce site has made their operation more efficient. The transition has facilitated the use of ecommerce to track inventory.
The service orientation and collegiality of Columbia students has been especially helpful, and with a board, a vice chair and a constant flow of student volunteers, Michael finds that he can devote less time to the pantry and focus more on his studies and graduation. He says he was surprised how starting the pantry was relatively easy.
Becoming a member of the Food Bank for New York City was simple. They applied through their portal and were accepted as the food bank for Columbia and were able to purchase food cheaper than a retail store. Furthermore, by partnering with Columbia Dining, the food pantry was able to leverage Sysco—a food wholesaler which handles large sale contracts—to obtain heavily discounted prices.
Since New York City got control of the coronavirus pandemic and ceased being the epicenter, the food pantry has seen monthly disbursements stabilize at about 350 per month. It was sometime in June, while stuck in my university apartment housing that I learned that I had access to Columbia University’s official food pantry co-founded and run by Michael, who reached out to me after a student volunteer reported witnessing me suffer racial profiling.
The next day, I received a phone call from the Director of Public Safety at Columbia, who extended his apologies and informed me that they were investigating and would soon provide me with feedback. Soon after, he contacted me again informing me that they had reviewed the security cameras and from the statements from all parties, had concluded that I had indeed been racially profiled.
They had decided to suspend the public safety officer in question without pay and were requiring that the erring officer complete a bias training course as condition for reinstatement.
Later in June, I was contacted for a meeting by an attorney and associate director of investigations for the university’s Office of Equal Employment and Affirmative Action. Showing the appropriate level of empathy, she immediately apologized for my experience. Then she asked me how I wanted the matter to be handled.
I expressed my satisfaction with how the director of public safety had handled the situation already, saying it was an opportunity to learn and to ensure that no Black student suffers a repeat incident in the future.
The school was certainly taking what seemed trivial on the scale of profiling incidents I had suffered (compared to my George Washington University saga) very seriously and they were at least showing it. Indeed, I have no doubt that the live streaming of the gruesome killing of George Floyd by law enforcement and the national mass protests to assert that Black lives matter partly informed the administration’s proactiveness to restore me.
It was while participating in a virtual seminar discussing the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd, run by the history department via zoom that I learned from a professor that the President of Columbia University, Lee C. Bollinger, had decided to terminate the university’s contract with its public safety provider.
I let it all sink in. It was a silent but salient victory scored by two minority students, who did not realize they had become heroes (in my eyes) by refusing to be complacent but chose to speak up when they saw a Black man being racially profiled on campus. By speaking up they helped the university make a strong statement that racial profiling would not be tolerated at Columbia.
Because she was wearing a mask, I would not recognize the Chinese student who reported the incident if I were to see her again. However, I have since spoken with Michael Higgins a couple of times. When I spoke with Michael, I learned that he was not actually politically active in the past, nor had he participated in any Black Lives Matter protests, although he says emphatically that he will “always support any form of Black empowerment.”
He said he always keeps himself informed of what is going on in politics, especially as it affects Black progress, even though he is never a participant. Michael says he is skeptical of the back and forth of gains made towards Black equality. He says while it is gratifying to see that allies are growing with the Black Lives Matter acceptance, he finds that historically the changes to shore up the Black community within the democratic landscape are never permanent, but often appear to be temporarily placatory.
“They are not permanent enough to affect the systemic problem for generations, of a judicial system and education all designed to restrict us,” says Michael apparently skeptical of the massive Black Lives Matter protests that have garnered support from 70 percent of mainstream America.
“We are not in power. What happens 20 years from now, when the activists are no longer in the movement, and nobody cares to do anything about the movement? What lasting point to permanently improve the lives of Black people does the protest make? We’ve got to be in a position to make systemic change,” he explains.
Michael insists that even with 8 years of Obama as President, he was not able to make this systemic change because he had to fight for everything since he did not have Congress or a majority liberal Supreme Court. He insists that while he appears cynical about politics, he believes change can be made if we keep fighting to make sure the right people are in positions of power politically. To that end, he sees himself becoming more politically active in the future.
“I voted on Thursday, and it was the greatest feeling ever,” said Michael as he reveals he voted early in his optimism that democrats can turn the tide in November’s elections. Early voting as an option was made available a few weeks prior to the November 3 presidential elections in the United States. Americans also had an option to mail in their ballots because of the pandemic.
The Food Pantry at Columbia co-founder reveals that he has never been a pan-Africanist and did not grow up appreciating his West Indian heritage either. Apart from visiting Jamaica as a child, he has never traveled out. But he sees all of that changing especially since he started dating his girlfriend from Haiti. After the pandemic, he is hoping to travel the world with his Haitian girlfriend, who is widely traveled. He thinks his first stop will be Morocco, then Spain and Portugal.
But for now, he is focusing on graduation and starting a career in urban planning. Living in Newark City Hall, Michael immediately sees applications of his degree from Columbia. The urban studies major makes him appreciate the prevailing conditions of downtown Newark development, as he sees how natives of Newark, mainly people of color, are being adversely affected by gentrification and the exorbitant prices of the apartments which they cannot afford.
Higgins believes he can change the narrative with his training from Columbia.
“The vast majority of Newark proper is made up of people of color, but downtown is gentrified, being mainly white professionals. It’s 20 minutes to New York City by transportation and the proximity raises prices for natives of Newark. You see new developments with a high-rise apartment building with a penthouse that costs over 4,000 dollars a month,” Michael continues.
“People who have lived in Newark their entire lives cannot afford 4k a month on rent because they are priced out,” points out Higgins.
However, Michael emphasizes that he would like to complete a degree in graduate school in probably public health or the public sector, before he gets involved with changing the housing situation in Newark.
Whatever course Michael Higgins decides to chart, I am sure he will continue to make a salient impact even while trying to remain as understated as much as he can possibly manage.
I will never be ashamed of being Black, of being an immigrant or for overcoming. I am too noble in character, too well raised and I’ve been too fortunate to be misrepresented and I have enough knowledge and forthrightness to admit and declare that I have stared systemic racism—which has become an American buzzword—in the face and I still stand. There are too many Black people that are used to undermine the truth of the victims of systemic racism. However, Michael Higgins is unapologetically not one of them. And I am glad he boldly came to my rescue.
We go through things for a reason and we can learn from terrible experiences that may change our perspective. After I’d been appalled to witness the frightful apathy and apparent cowardice of Black lawyers to racist trauma visited on some African students at George Washington University, I was relieved to find support from Michael when again I was wrongly profiled at another university.
I am grateful I got to know more about my African American brother who had stood behind me, when many others would have been indifferent.
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