I am a Black Cop's Kid
An excerpt from my new article about growing up with a Black cop for a father.
Please attribute any references of this article to Kareem.substack.com
I recently wrote an in-depth article for Amazon about the trials and tribulations of growing up in the Sixties and Seventies with a Black cop for a father and how that influenced the man I was to become, both as an athlete and as an activist. The following excerpt gives you some insight into what it was like for me as a child in New York City during the most violent civil rights unrest in U.S. history. My father’s badge was both a moral compass and a burdening weight. And that, as Robert Frost says, has made all the difference.
“Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have the exact measure of the injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them.”
For fifty years I’ve been both defending and criticizing the police. I’ve criticized them when their actions reflected the violent systemic racism that resulted in the deaths of unarmed minorities. I’ve defended them when their good works were overlooked. I especially didn’t want all cops lumped together as a monolithic hive-mind, the way so many have done with marginalized people in this country. They, too, have a voice that needs to be heard. This precarious tightrope act has resulted in venomous backlash from both sides. I’ve been accused of being both a Black anti-cop agitator and an apologist for racist police violence. My ability to see both sides isn’t the result of trying to please both sides; my perspective is the result of having been raised by a Black police officer in New York City during the most tumultuous civil rights upheaval the country has ever been through and of the effect both those influences had on me throughout my life.
My father—Lieutenant Ferdinand Alcindor of the NYPD—was a transit cop working out of the 145th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue station who patrolled the subways, trains, and platforms to keep people safe. He was dedicated to serving all the people of New York City. But he was also committed to being a role model in the Black community, to being seen as someone who recognized the inequities of being Black and who silently bore that burden with dignity and purpose. Many of the principles I hold dearest about justice and activism are the result of his noble example, even though he definitely wouldn’t agree with all my public political stances or the steps I took to promote them. He didn’t support my boycott of the 1968 Olympic basketball team or my participation in the Cleveland Summit, nor would he have endorsed my criticisms of the police after the murders of Michael Brown, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor or my enthusiastic agreement with the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020. But he certainly would have agreed with my desire to serve my community. This is the story of how my father’s role as a Black cop gave me a unique perspective on the front lines of activism, how it inspired me to action, and how it shaped the form that action would take. Not just as a Black activist, but as a student, an athlete, a writer, a man, and an American.
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“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” —Desmond Tutu
Black Cop in Blue
My father was not an activist. He didn’t march with Martin, didn’t give impassioned speeches, didn’t demand racial equality with a raised fist. But he became a cop in 1955, at a time when doing so was in itself a defiant political statement. The job carried dangers from both the street and his fellow officers. On the street, some white people were contemptuous of seeing a Black man in authority and weren’t shy about expressing their distaste with vile epithets, and in turn he heard the mutterings of Uncle Tom from those who looked like him, angry to see one of their own “colluding with the enemy.”
There was also plenty of hostility from the police department. In 1960, five years after he’d joined the force, only 5 percent of the NYPD was Black, even though African Americans made up 14 percent of New York City’s population.[iii] That made him both an anomaly and a target—on the street and on the force.
In 1960, I was thirteen and didn’t fully understand what it meant to be a Black cop in New York City. We lived in a housing project on Dyckman Street, which was the dividing line between the Irish neighborhoods to the north and the Jewish ones to the south. When we first moved there, my mom and I were shopping in a small grocery store when the white owner accused my mom of shoplifting and demanded to look in her purse. I was so startled that I knocked over a shelf of bread. My mother refused and left. Later, she returned with my father, who showed the owner his badge, and that was the end of our being harassed. When I walked through our neighborhood with my dad, all I knew was that I was proud of the way most of the people nodded or smiled at Big Al (for Alcindor), as he was called. I was Little Al. That was still true even though he was 6′3″ and, at thirteen, I was 6′8″. In my eyes, he was still much bigger. On those occasions when we came across a white pedestrian who saw my dad’s uniform and looked a bit startled, I felt an extra surge of pride. He had rattled someone’s preconceived notion about Blacks, and it was thrilling. I didn’t realize at the time that startling whites out of their biases was the entire mission of the Civil Rights Movement and would become the driving force in my own life.
The reality is that we didn’t actually walk together through the neighborhood that often. In fact, I rarely saw him. Because of his rotating work schedule—4 p.m. to midnight for two weeks, midnight to 8 a.m. for two weeks, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. for two weeks—I only saw him for two out of every six weeks. And even then, he was mostly a silent sentinel of routine—reading, playing jazz records, eating. When I was nine and baseball meant everything to me, he took me to a Dodgers game at Ebbets Field, and I watched Jackie Robinson steal second base. It was a great day, but even then I had no expectation that we’d ever do it again. And we didn’t.
Sometimes when I’d travel the subways, I’d see him on duty standing on the platforms or chatting with the people selling tokens, but we never interacted. We just silently passed each other, like at home.
My father was a distant and reserved parent. He didn’t show affection, though I knew I was loved and cared for. Like a cultivated orchard under glass. He was that way with my friends, too. If my mom gave me a birthday party, my father would pal around with each of my friends and cheerfully interact with them like a dad in a sitcom. But on Dyckman Street, he acted as if he’d never seen them before. Maybe that wasn’t an act. Maybe his life at home as a dad was so separate from his life on the street as a cop that he was never able to merge the two. The irony is not lost on me that my characterization of my dad as aloof and remote is very similar to the one the press used to describe me when I was playing basketball, but for very different reasons.
Most of the time, he was just the guy that slept in Mom’s bed. Being an only child, I was doted on by my mother, Cora, who, in contrast to my father, was attentive and affectionate. She found joy in everything and loved nothing more than sharing that joy with me. She worked as a seamstress in Alexander’s department store on Grand Concourse and Fordham Road but was never too tired or too busy to ask about my day and encourage my interests. The dour silence of my father was contrasted sharply by her cheerful chatter and infectious optimism.
At thirteen years old, I didn’t know about the city’s notorious history of police racism that ran through the force like an underground sewage system. I didn’t know about the famous police riot in 1900 in which a Black man defending his wife stabbed an out-of-uniform cop, resulting in white mobs and a hundred white cops tearing through Black neighborhoods bludgeoning Blacks and dragging them from their beds into the streets. Though there was an international protest to the brutality, the NYC Police Board conducted an investigation that, despite the sworn testimony of dozens, cleared all police of wrongful behavior.[iv] I didn’t know about the Harlem Riot of 1935 sparked when a sixteen-year-old Black Puerto Rican shoplifted a ten-cent pocketknife and was threatened with a beating by an employee of the store. Though the boy escaped, rumors of his beating and even death spread, resulting in three deaths and hundreds of arrests. I didn’t know about the Harlem Riot of 1943, when a Black soldier intervened when a white officer was arresting a Black woman for disorderly conduct and was shot by the officer. Two days of rioting resulted in six deaths and six hundred arrests.[v] I didn’t know all the horrors of the past, but we all could tell the past was prelude to a growing anger in the Black community at those in power. And their representatives on the streets. The police.
Despite my father’s quiet distance, my teenage home life was not a morbid mausoleum. I had my own room, which was unusual among my friends, with my own record player and radio, and my bicycle leaning against the wall. I also had a window that looked out over the Cloisters, a museum in a medieval building, that allowed me to imagine myself having exciting exploits on its walls. My room was like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. I had time to myself to read adventure novels like The Three Musketeers, to play the jazz records of Herbie Hancock, John Coltrane, and Miles Davis—yes, like my father—but also time to play with friends, to imagine great adventures to come. In the living room I watched TV Westerns, which kick-started my interest in history.
One day, when I was watching The Rifleman and I saw Black icon Sammy Davis Jr. appear as a gunfighter and do these amazing fast-draw tricks (Sammy actually was a fast-draw expert), I was so delighted to see a Black person in a Western who wasn’t a slave or a servant that it got me thinking about why that was. That wonderment eventually grew into a mild obsession with the history of Blacks in the Old West. When I was playing in the NBA, I started reading books about the history of Blacks in the West and discovered that one in four cowboys was Black, yet I almost never saw one on TV or in the movies.[vi] I began collecting artifacts that memorialized how important Blacks were in the Old West, from the fierce Buffalo Soldiers to Bass Reeves, one of the first Black sheriffs and some say the inspiration for the Lone Ranger. Yeah, that Lone Ranger.
In some ways, the activist I was to become started in my room. Without my father at home, I was forced to become more self-sufficient, having to resolve my own conflicts, grapple with teenage angst, deal with embarrassing growth spurts, and struggle with racial identity. Yet even though my father may not have been present, his presence loomed. Older kids stepped back when he walked by, both out of respect and fear. My father carried himself with such dignity, purpose, and confidence that he was perceived as a community role model. A manifestation of the clear lines between right and wrong. Great Expectations. I could breathe him in like the aroma of Mom’s cooking wafting from the kitchen. He was an invisible trestle that was shaping my growth.
Regardless of my father’s remote nature—or maybe because of it—he represented The System. Not just the legal rules we lived by but, because he was a uniform-wearing representative, a benevolence that emanated from those in authority. The System had to be good, must know what was best for us, or my father would never have been a part of it.
You can read the rest of this article here.