Michael Boa, a Jamaican who lives in Washington, wanted me to spend a day with him, sort of shadow him, as detectives say, to see what it was like being a "different looking" person in America. The Fourth of July weekend seemed appropriate.
For months, Boa, 28, has complained of being verbally abused and discriminated against because of his skin, which is black, and his hair, which he wears in long, matted braids.
Boa is a Rastafarian, and doesn't believe in cutting his hair. It is the way of the Rastafari to be proud of natural features. Through his religion, he says, he has acquired spiritual strength and a positive self-image that white culture could not provide.
He is a good-natured man who means no harm. But as we walked around the city, Boa was harassed by obscenities, shunned with disgust and met with suspicion by both blacks and whites. At the National Zoo, he was taunted by one youth who boldly asked if he was an "escapee."
From the beginning of our walk, I was reminded of the recent Supreme Court case involving Edward Lawson, a black Californian who resembles Boa, and who was detained and questioned by police 15 times during a two-year period while walking or hitchhiking in predominantly white areas of San Diego.
Like Boa, Lawson attributed part of his problem to his hair style, sometimes referred to as "dreadlocks." Lawson challenged the constitutionality of the law that was used to detain him, and the court, in a 7 to 2 decision, ruled in his favor.
But as I walked around with Boa on the Mall, where Washington area residents joined tourists to celebrate, among other things, respect for the individual, it was impressed upon me, again, that Supreme Court rulings can't change the nature of prejudice.
At the Lincoln Memorial, two boys on bicycles passed us, then turned back for a second look. "Did you see that nigger?" one of them said loudly. The other boy contorted his face in mock horror.
Boa said, "See what I mean?"
I wasn't expecting this: The two boys on the bicycles were black. He dismissed them as ignorant and self-hating victims of racism. Then he took a seat on a park bench next to a white couple and their children.
"Mommy! Look!" a little girl shouted, pointing at Boa's Medusa-like braids. "Yeah, I see it, baby," the mother said calmly. The father was less cool. "Let's go," he said abruptly, almost burning rubber on the baby carriage as he wheeled his child away.
I was embarrassed, but Boa smiled with delight. For him, it was as if the invisible hand of racism, so hard and swift you sometimes don't know what hit you, had finally been exposed.
When we stopped for food at a hot dog stand, several patrons immediately moved away. This upset the vendor, who served us with a frown. One man wearing an "I Am Not A Tourist" T-shirt, stared long and hard at Boa, spat a brown wad of yuck on the sidewalk, then walked away shaking his head.
"It happens all the time," Boa said. "You ought to see what happens when I go into a restaurant . . . or a bookstore." Frankly, I had had enough. And so, it seemed, had many of Boa's friends, the 1,000 or so Rastafarians who live in Washington.
Except for a few who have tough skins, most of the Rastas live underground and amongst themselves. Many have turned to the underground economy of marijuana sales to make a living. As Jack Anderson wrote in a recent newspaper column about the group, whom he referred to as "junglelites," law enforcement agencies are becoming increasingly concerned about a violent takeover by Rastas of the nation's marijuana markets. They are already in control in New York and Washington, according to Anderson.
If this is true, the potential for conflict is increasing. Already, there are reports of skirmishes within the city, mostly involving Rastafarians and local residents at nightclubs. Boa says he has been involved in one such fight. But the violence so far has nothing to do with marijuana.
To find out what's really going on here, walk a mile in Boa's shoes.