opinion

Bucks County Judge Clyde W. Waite was nearly arrested at his own home for being black. That's not OK. | Maria Panaritis

Maria Panaritis, Regional Columnist

Updated: Thursday, February 1, 2018, 11:34 AM

Bucks County Senior Judge Clyde W. Waite, the first and still only – African American Bucks County judge speaks about race at his home Tuesday, January 30, 2018 in Wrightstown, Pennsylvania. In 2016, the judge was wrongly pulled out of his home by police during the Thanksgiving holiday after a visitor to his neighborhood mistook him for a burglar. He also was mistakenly identified three decades earlier as a burglar while seated, then as a public defender, in a Bucks County courtroom.

Judge Clyde W. Waite won’t do it. Won’t get angry. The low-key jurist decided long ago that even simmering rage is often counterproductive. So I will call foul for him, because Clyde Waite has been humiliated once too often for being black in Bucks County.

It is not OK that the Yale Law School graduate and Republican senior County Court judge, 73, was sleeping in his own bed in the Philly suburbs when a half-dozen police, acting on a bad tip from a neighbor, swarmed his home.

It is not OK that this was his third case of mistaken identity over a sterling career spanning four decades in the whitest of Philadelphia’s suburban counties in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

It is not OK that even mentioning his travails in this column will trigger unsavory responses from readers who would rather spew rage than consider a humbling dose of reflection.

But we have no choice but to listen and learn. The integrity of our humanity is at stake. We must try to be better.

Waite became the first African American ever elected to a countywide post in Bucks County 15 years ago. He’d been a real estate broker and lawyer before that, lifting himself from a childhood so grueling that he was the only second grader in his McKeesport, Pa., class without enough money to buy milk every month.

But on Nov. 25, 2016, the judge was reduced, for several terrifying minutes, to nothing more than a suspected burglar in his own home.

“Come out!” Newtown Township police shouted while aiming flashlights through the open slats of vertical blinds above the judge’s pillow the night after Thanksgiving. Waite had just flown back from an out-of-town trip. He didn’t immediately realize the voices outside were cops — a lot of them. He thought about grabbing his gun.

Thank God he didn’t. One false move by either side might have triggered calamity. Who can forget how, in 2009, police in Massachusetts responding to a burglary report arrested African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., at his own home?

“I was more dazed and confused than frightened,” Waite explained, insisting in his trademark mellow voice that he was not angry as he shared his story publicly for the first time with me a few days ago.

We met at his Wrightstown home because Waite had decided, after years of a subdued public profile, that the time had come to stir reflection about stereotypes and prejudice. The burglary story will be part of a speech he plans to give Friday at a tribute dinner in his honor in Doylestown, cosponsored by the local historical society and Bucks County African American Museum, a new group with no such building just yet. The timing coincides with the start of Black History Month.

What kept things from spiraling out of control that night at Waite’s home was a combination of good sense by police and the judge’s own steely nerves.

The burden of responding gracefully during these indignities, starting when he was a young boy in an otherwise all-white town near Pittsburgh, has always landed first and foremost on the man on the receiving end of them.

The judge walked out his front door and revealed himself to the men with guns. One officer instantly recognized him. “Judge?” he said, in bewilderment. “Is everything OK in there?”

Guests of a neighbor had seen a black man pull into his own house in an affluent enclave and assumed he was a burglar.

Waite is all too aware that he stands out in this place he has called home for four decades. Only 3 percent of all people in Bucks County are black.

The real crime that night was that no amount of hard work, public service or attitudinal fortitude has spared this one man, raised by a domestic-servant widow in poverty, from being humiliated for the color of his skin.

Time and again.

After winning re-election as a Republican judge in 2013, Waite was mistaken the next day for the courthouse janitor. (A longtime court reporter he’d known for years became confused because Waite, gathering up his campaign signs outside, wasn’t dressed in a tie or judicial robe.)

And then there was the time, soon after he moved to Bucks in the 1970s, when the young lawyer was wrongly identified as a defendant during a trial. Then a public defender, Waite was seated in the courtroom working on a case.

The mild-mannered, elegant jurist smiles and speaks softly as he discusses each of these awkward memories. He says his whole life is about pushing past anger, not wallowing in it.

“If you don’t give up, and you keep working,” says the man whose sons include a Harvard grad and a Hollywood comedy writer, “things will turn around.”

Not always, as this latest encounter sadly shows.

One thing Waite hopes to get across in his speech Friday is that there is a way past these stereotypes.

“There is a need for people to see minorities in a position of authority,” he says.

That means on TV, in public office, in our neighborhoods.

“I want to make sure that people realize that minorities have a more difficult time,” he says, “doing the right thing.”

I hope that by giving voice to Clyde Waite’s humiliations, it may somehow humble us all into accepting that society — that means us the people — have heaped an unfair burden on good people like him. We are better than that.

At least, we should be.

Maria Panaritis, Regional Columnist

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