Merlin, 38, left Cameroon last year due to violence. But as a black immigrant, his experience in America has been a unique challenge. Rachel Zein for The Texas Tribune
Editor’s note: Some language in this story may not be appropriate for the faint of heart. Consider yourself warned.
After a months-long journey across the Atlantic Ocean, into Central America and through Mexico, Merlin arrived at the U.S. port of entry in Laredo full of hope. The 38-year-old who worked in hotel management said he fled violent political unrest in Cameroon to seek a new life in America, a country he viewed as a bastion of safety and freedom.
But after legally crossing the border and asking for asylum, Merlin was detained by federal officials for 11 months. He lived at the South Texas Detention Complex along with people who didn’t look like him or speak his native language, French.
Merlin, who asked to be identified only by his first name because he’s fleeing political persecution, was frequently frustrated with how the reality of life as a refugee in America conflicts with the country’s image as a haven for immigrants while he struggled through an asylum process experiencing fundamental shifts under the Trump administration.
This wasn’t the United States he thought would be welcoming him with open arms and opportunity. Some days, he questioned why he came.
“I was a bit disappointed for what we were thinking,” Merlin said last week. “In Africa, you thought [America] was paradise.”
As the Trump administration implemented its now-reversed “zero tolerance” immigration policy and narrowed previous paths to asylum , thousands of Mexican and Central American immigrants became the faces of chaotic changes that federal agencies made in how they treat people legally and illegally crossing the border.
But asylum seekers like Merlin who fled African countries have also been ensnared in the bureaucratic tumult. And those black African immigrants arriving in Texas are finding a litany of racial, cultural and practical challenges that can be different from — and overshadowed by — the experiences of Latino immigrants who flood into Texas each year, advocates and experts say.
“We become frustrated with the single story pushed out,”said Deborah Alemu of the UndocuBlack Network, an organization that advocates for black, undocumented immigrants.
The number of African immigrants in the U.S. has roughly doubled every decade since 1970, according to the Pew Research Center. The original plaintiffs at the heart of what is now a class-action lawsuit that the American Civil Liberties Union filed against Immigration and Customs Enforcement over federal officials separating families seeking asylum are from the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Texas, the second-most populous state in the country, has more than 235,000 foreign-born African residents. That is more than any other state, according to 2016 U.S. Census data. But those immigrants represent only 5 percent of the state’s total foreign-born residents, thanks mainly to the large number of immigrant Texas residents born in Latin America.
Alemu said that historical racism and discrimination directed at black people in America can exacerbate the difficulties African immigrants already face for being an asylum seeker.
“You won’t be recognized as Ghanaian, Congolese or Jamaican,” Alemu said. “You’ll be recognized as black.”
A “resting place of hope”
Four houses sit in a cul-de-sac in East Austin, forming what is almost a small town. Children outside run from house to house. Doors slam as squeals of laughter and chatter fill the air. These homes belong to Posada Esperanza, which roughly translates to “resting place of hope,” a transitional housing program for immigrant mothers and their children who are escaping cultural or domestic violence. The organization provides immigrant women and their children with temporary housing and resources to find jobs and permanent homes.
Patti McCabe, the shelter’s director, said Posada’s population was once majority Latino residents. But now, nearly half of the women housed at Posada are from African countries. Most of them fled the Democratic Republic of Congo — a country dealing with violent fallout from the 1994 Rwandan genocide, which triggered a wave of weak governance, exposing Congolese civilians to sexual violence and rape, extreme poverty and human rights violations by rebel groups.
McCabe said Africans often travel as family units. But once they reach American soil seeking asylum, the husbands are detained and the women and children are often released while they wait for court dates. Posada receives many immigrant women who are pregnant or have given birth without their spouses by their side. One Congolese woman currently at Posada was within days of her due date this month while her husband remained detained at a facility in New Jersey.
“When you think of family separation, you think of children being separated from their parents — that’s what everyone has been talking about,” Posada case manager Laura Messenger said. “But what we’ve seen a lot this year and what we have been seeing for the past two is our women and children here being separated from their husbands and fathers who are still in detention.”
Posada’s staff teach women how to ride the city buses, find health clinics and research work and housing options during their stay. But the goal is to teach the women to financially sustain themselves and their children on their own — which can be incongruous to the traditional gender roles some of the women were taught. Yet for the women of Posada, being financially independent single mothers while their husbands are detained has been empowering, McCabe said.
“It would be they might have input, but the husband always makes the ultimate decision,” McCabe said. “But now, like it or not, they’re the ones who need to make the decisions.”
Still, basic activities like riding public transportation or going to the grocery store can be a difficult task for those who don’t speak Spanish and English — the two most predominant languages in Texas.
“I just can’t imagine how that must feel from their perspective — to not be able to communicate even simple things about what they need in the facilities, let alone their asylum claim and conveying that in an application that’s in English,” said Priscilla Olivarez, an attorney with American Gateways, an organization that has asylum-seeking clients from Africa.
Then U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last month issued a ruling that made it tougher for victims solely escaping domestic or gang violence to seek asylum in the U.S. — leading to more deportations before seekers have the opportunity to argue their cases in front of an immigration judge. Sessions had previously criticized what he called widespread abuse of the asylum system and said in October that the asylum process “has become an easy ticket to illegal entry into the United States.”
Olivarez, who sees many asylum claims from African immigrants based on religious reasons or gender-based violence, said she’s seen an increase in asylum denials after Sessions’ June ruling. Olivarez has also seen an uptick in cases where people are being required to pay a parole bond so they can be released while awaiting a final determination of their asylum request. And she’s noticed more parole bond requests denied, meaning asylum seekers are being detained as the process winds through federal courts.
“Before the administration change, we wouldn’t see that,” Olivarez said. “Generally we wouldn’t see parole bonds and they wouldn’t be as high as we’re seeing.”
Immigrations and Customs Enforcement reported that 35,070 bonds have been posted so far this year, compared to 48,199 for all of 2017 and 42,384 for all of 2016.
An ICE spokesman said there have been no changes to the bond policy and that “custody decisions are made on a case-by-case basis taking into account multiple factors, including immigration history, criminal history, medical history and ties to the community.”
Olivarez said her African clients have been “shocked” when they are detained after seeking asylum at the border — especially those who were imprisoned in their home countries for being political activists and must now deal with what she called the “retraumatization” of being detained.
“Many clients tell me they did not think they would be treated this way,” Olivarez said. “For many of them, America was a country that valued freedom, which is why they made the dangerous journey to come to the U.S. They believed the U.S. was the only country that would provide them with sufficient protection. However, when they arrive in the U.S., they feel as if they are treated as a criminal.”
From African jail to American detention
Merlin left Cameroon after violence erupted between the country’s French-speaking population, which dominates the government, and English-speaking separatists, who have reportedly been marginalized by the French-speaking majority.
Since 2016, scores of civilians on both sides have been killed, with the government accused of torturing suspected separatists and separatists accused of kidnapping and extorting civilians and state workers, according to Human Rights Watch.
Merlin, who grew up farming with his parentsand is now a single dad, saw the country he loved rapidly change before his eyes. After being arrested with hundreds of others during a protest, Merlin’s mother begged him to go to America for his safety.
He was surprised that he was detained for so long, but he said he’s grateful that it was only 11 months. He met other detainees who had been there for years.
“Why allow people in and detain them?” Merlin said.
Racism, discrimination linger beyond asylum process
Merlin was released in February and then stayed at Casa Marianella, another Austin-based immigrant adult shelter, where he connected with other French-speaking African immigrants. As he awaits a judge’s ruling on his asylum case, he is slowly adjusting to life in America.
“When you get out of [detention], you put your hand on your chest and say, ‘thank God,’” Merlin said. “I’m more safe today.”
But even those black African immigrants who are allowed to stay while their asylum requests are processed — and those who successfully immigrate to the United States — face racial bias and discrimination both inside and outside the immigration enforcement system, according to a 2016 report by the NYU Immigrant Rights Clinic and the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.
For many, the past two years of the Trump presidency have felt like twenty. Tensions surrounding every issue, from police brutality and immigration regulation to our education system have seemed to be on a constant, and sometimes spiking incline. However, despite the increased feelings of distress and actions of contempt among Americans, there are still people working to combat this country’s general state. Citizens of all ages understand now more than ever the power of their voices, especially the youth. Whether it’s organizing and speaking out at rallies for gun reformation, marching for black visibility, or educating their peers on the vitality of voting, young people are increasingly aware of their power to change the future.
Hundreds of faith-based social justice organizations across the country are working for the betterment of all people, battling systemic racism, sexism, classism, or an intersection of the three. The missions are all the same at their core — to make a difference with the time we’re given by leaving the world better than we found it, keeping faith at the center.
If you’re ready to get active and involved, consider volunteering for one of the organizations listed below that speaks to your own personal values or seek one out with a similar mission in your area. We’re just getting started on this list and will continue to build it out on UrbanFaith.com. If you have one in mind that we should add, please email us at [email protected].
Mission: To “inform and bring people of faith and congregations together…to intentionally and decisively transform society toward greater social justice at the intersection of racism and poverty.” They affect this refinement of perspective and policy through engagement within their communities, holding policymakers accountable, and helping the public understand that their income is not a restriction on their right to be fully participating members of society.
Mission: Founded in 1997 by the Very Reverend James Parks Morton, this organization has been working to mend the gaps between the various faith communities in New York in order to create beneficial programs for its citizens. In the 21 years they’ve been active, they’ve developed education programs for students, teachers, social workers, and young parolees. Through faith-based retreats, local partnerships, and the recognition of outstanding team members, this amalgam of belief systems, from Christian to Buddhist to Shinto, are able to fulfill ICNY’s mission to “overcome prejudice, violence, and misunderstanding by activating the power of the city’s grassroots religious and civic leaders and their communities.”
Mission: Sponsored by the Morningside Presbyterian Church out of Atlanta, this group is dedicated to “engaging communities of faith in stewardship of Creation…as a religious response to global climate change, resource depletion, environmental injustice, pollution, and other disruptions in Creation.” Since its founding in 2003 by Reverend Woody and Carol Bartlett, GIPL has supplied bodies of faith across Georgia with the tools necessary to combat humanity’s affliction on the planet. By standing on their principles of faith including Justice, Community of Life, and Stewardship, they have been able to decrease the energy consumption and cost of their 500+ partners, while also providing them with new earth-friendly initiatives.
WATER is an education center “committed to theological, ethical, and ritual development by and for women.” Their mission is “to use feminist religious values to create social change.” Their work of the past thirty years has included ensuring women’s right to exercise their humanity and spirituality. WATER has implemented a variety of programs, such as WATERtalks, which is a monthly free and open to the public presentation featuring female scholars and religious leaders who create a dialogue with the audience through sharing their experiences in a specific field as a woman. WATER also hosts various collaborations, such as Women Crossing Worlds (WCW), which is an engagement with women from Spain to Mexico through reciprocal visits and teachings intended on strengthening their study of effective enactments of theology.
MOSES is a community organizing nonprofit that works to help everyday people, particularly in marginalized communities, get the skills they need to effectively address what concerns them most. The organization is “guided by faith-based principles of social justice and fellowship” and believes in developing grassroots leaders. They do this through training leaders in places of worship, showing them how to explain their shared values in the public arena and work together with area residents.
Finally, Los Angeles is home to California Faith for Equality (CFE), spreading the message of loving they neighbor by helping to bridge the gap between communities of faith and nonreligious LGBTQ+ groups, both on a local and national level. Started in 2005, CFE is a growing network that builds upon other organizations and efforts in order to serve their mission of “educating, supporting, and mobilizing California’s communities of faith for LGBTQ+ people and to safeguard religious freedom.” They are an influential factor is California’s growingly diverse community, serving the members of their community through and for faith.
African-Australians protesting what they perceive as biased media coverage outside the Channel 7 studios in Melbourne last weekend. Ellen Smith/AAP
Just before Channel 7 aired a Sunday Night special devoted to Melbourne’s “African gangs” problem earlier this month, the race discrimination commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, went on Twitter to criticize a promotion spot as “fear-mongering and racial hysteria”.
The same could be said of a string of stories in the Australian media in recent months on violent incidents committed by “African gangs” or people of “African appearance”. The death of a 19-year-old Sudanese woman at a party in Melbourne earlier this month was linked in some reports with gang violence – something Victorian police ruled out. Even a gate-crashing incident at a teenager’s birthday party this week was deemed a news story of national importance by The Australian due to the culprits’ racial identity.
Such media coverage is, sadly, something African-Australians have been exposed to before – it seems to have popped up regularly in some form over the past ten years, at least. Before this, it was the Lebanese who were said to be forming menacing gangs, and before them, the Vietnamese and the Italians. The Australian media have a poor record in dealing with difference and diversity.
The central issue here is not that violent incidents are being covered – it’s the media’s duty to report on issues of public safety. The problem is the disproportionate amount of attention focused on the so-called African gang problem in Melbourne and the way these incidents are being discussed.
Among the universe of labels available to describe these crime incidents in Melbourne, the media have, predictably, fallen back on the familiar ground of racial or national identity. Seemingly unconcerned with the great diversity that defines Africa, the label “African gangs” has become lazy shorthand for anyone of African descent. One wonders whether a white person from Africa would be included under this “African gangs” umbrella.
One of the questions many migrants have is why their nationality, race and cultural background has become such a defining feature in crime coverage when the whiteness of other criminal offenders is essentially ignored and rendered invisible.
As Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton perhaps inadvertently suggested last week when he railed against “a major law and order problem in Victoria” that wasn’t happening elsewhere, why haven’t the media blamed these incidents on “Melbourne gangs”?
Or, while we’re at it, why not call them “male gangs” or, as has sometimes been used in an attempt to include non-black offenders, “youth gangs”?
Of course, none of this would improve the media coverage of the recent Melbourne violence. These labels are just as useless in describing the complex mixture of social, cultural and economic factors behind these offences as a focus on racial identity. As the Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Stephen Leane has said, there’s not even consensus on whether “gangs” have been involved at all.
But at least these alternative labels would carry less of the injurious baggage that racial labels do.
Race equals identity
Not only do racial labels implicate all Africans in violent crime, they also keep alive that most pernicious of links between race and behaviour. If the race of offenders is the only part of their identity worth mentioning in news reports, then it stands to reason this has a causal link with their behaviour. Other complex factors that contribute to crime get ignored.
Journalists may argue that in the rush of their overworked lives, they seldom have the time to explore these types of stories in more depth. They certainly don’t have time to gather information on the offenders’ upbringing, background, education, socioeconomic status and their past experiences with violence and injustice – perceived or otherwise.
But why then consistently fall back on race and nationality? Perhaps it is something about these young offenders’ backgrounds – a source of “cultural incompatibility”, in the language of soft racism. But many of these offenders are legally Australian. Many were likely born in Australia or spent their formative years in Australia.
The damage caused by all of this is real, and the fact that politicians, including Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, are buying into such narratives is a point of anxiety for Australians with African heritage.
This type of bias has been shown to have negative impacts on the wellbeing and sense of belonging of African-Australians.
Indeed, some Sudanese-Australians now live in fear of racially charged attacks due to the overwhelmingly negative media coverage. As one 19-year-old African-Australian put it at a rally outside Channel 7 last weekend:
The damage that it’s doing to our community is inconceivable. I want the wider Australian community to see the pain we are going through, and understand the pain. All we want is a fair go in this society. To show who we are as people and … not lazy journalism.
It seems inevitable this sort of media coverage will continue – it has a long history. It is also not simply the fault of individual journalists, many of whom are hard-working, intelligent and conscientious. Rather, it is the result of far more entrenched attitudes toward race in Australia, one that involves objectified notions of racial or cultural hierarchies and a newly reinvigorated politics of fear of migrants.
As researchers at the Birmingham Centre for Contemporary Cultural in the UK pointed out 40 years ago, journalists do not sit outside their cultural and political contexts, but often reflect and reinforce them.
One way of changing the narrative is through social media, community media and ethnic minority media. Whether it be the subversion of the “African gangs” problem on Twitter, or in the media produced by people of African heritage, alternative interpretations do exist.
It’s also incumbent on mainstream media to give a voice to those in the African community who feel impacted by biased reporting. Some news outlets are doing this. But it’s equally important these media organisations take a hard look at their coverage of these issues and the power of the words they use. Media are not the cause of racism, but they do have the power to shift public attitudes and increase understanding in society.
NAIROBI, Kenya (RNS) – Eritrean Christians and human rights advocates are cheering the release of 35 Christian prisoners as a new peace pact between Eritrea and Ethiopia takes hold this month. But hundreds remain imprisoned in Eritrea under harsh conditions stemming from a war in which members of Christian sects were targeted for mass incarceration.
For the last two decades, Eritrean authorities have persecuted religious groups, frequently arresting church leaders and detaining them in small shipping container prisons where advocates say they’re routinely deprived of water, food, proper sanitation and medicines. The roundup traces to a 2002 law that permits the operation of only a handful of religious groups: Orthodox Christian, Evangelical Lutheran and Roman Catholic churches, along with Sunni Islam.
Since then, the government has cracked down on evangelical and Pentecostal churches, which are seen as foreign-influenced threats to security and Eritrean autonomy. Seen as relative newcomers to the religious landscape, they’re accused of using aggressive evangelistic tactics and causing social divisions.
At least 10 prisons around the country are holding hundreds of prisoners who have been detained for anywhere from a few months to 20 years, according to Release Eritrea, a U.K. charity that highlights Christian persecution in the country. Among them is the former Patriarch of Eritrea Orthodox Church, Abune Antonios, who is in his 80s and has been under house arrest and incommunicado since 2007. He was deposed after complaining about the government’s interference with the church.
The released prisoners — 11 women and 24 men – are not leaders of their respective groups and fellowships and were released on unclear bail terms. They pledged not to take part in worship practices of banned religious sects.
Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, left, and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, center, hold hands as they wave at the crowds in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on July 15, 2018. Official rivals just weeks ago, the leaders of Ethiopia and Eritrea have embraced warmly to the roar of a crowd of thousands at a concert celebrating the end of a long state of war. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)
The release has drawn some praise, but it has been seen as a drop in the ocean of the crisis. Hundreds of Christians are locked up in both military detentions and ordinary prisons. According to Open Doors, an international anti-persecution organization, the country is believed to be holding between 1,200 and 3,000 people on religious grounds. Some human rights activists say it is difficult to establish the exact number because every army unit has its own prison.
On July 9, Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki signed a peace agreement, bringing to an end one of Africa’s long-running conflicts. Afwerki had used the situation to justify his regime’s crackdown, which has continued to view members of some Christian sects as foreign spies.
Eritrea, a Horn of Africa country with a population of about 5 million, gained independence from Ethiopia in 1993 after a two-decade war. However, disputes over the border sparked a full-blown war from 1998-2000 that killed an estimated 80,000 people. A U.N. deal in 2000 ended the fighting and in 2002 a border commission gave the disputed land to Eritrea. Ethiopia rejected the verdict, which led to 16 years of tension, including periods of open conflict, until this month, when Ethiopia said it would accept the U.N. deal.
Church leaders have been happy about the agreement, which they hope will free the church in Eritrea, end the top leader’s security fears and open up the country again to the world.
“This peace agreement is a gift from God,” said the Rev. Mussie Zerai, an Eritrea Roman Catholic priest who runs a hotline for distressed Eritrean migrants as they flee to Europe via boat in the Mediterranean Sea. When migrant vessels encounter trouble, he calls in GPS coordinates for European rescue vessels.
In this Saturday, Feb 27, 2016 photo, Eritrean Christian Orthodox migrants women hold their babies during a baptism ceremony at a makeshift church in Tel Aviv, Israel. Hundreds of faithful gather each week in the makeshift churches. With its walls bedecked with Christian paraphernalia, it is an unlikely scene in the heart of the Jewish state, hidden in a non-descript buildings in hardscrabble south Tel Aviv. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
“Peace comes with freedom, rights, development, justice and democracy,” he said.
In Eritrea, Afwerki’s government has closed borders, forced out foreign missionaries and nongovernmental organizations and shut down churches. According to the Rev. Abraham Hailu, an Ethiopian Roman Catholic priest who hails from near the Eritrean border and now serves in Sudan, Eritrea’s ban on foreign missionaries has made it difficult for the world to follow events in the country, despite mounting allegations of widespread human rights abuses.
At the same time, Hailu said, there are signs the situation is changing for the better.
“We see hope. With the agreement, we hope Eritrea will follow the steps of Ethiopia and release more of its prisoners,” he said.
Eritrea, highlighted in red, is a small coastal nation north of Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa. Map courtesy of Google
On a beautiful spring afternoon on a picturesque college campus, two campus police officers responded to a black professor’s “good afternoon” with a request to see his identification.
The professor paused for a moment but decided to comply. He wondered if perhaps his attire – slacks, a button-down shirt and loafers – didn’t signal that he belonged.
As he presented his ID, another group of colleagues – all white – arrived and asked what was happening, so the professor told them. His colleagues asked the officers – in a sarcastic way – if they needed to show identification as well. The officers hurriedly returned the professor’s ID and didn’t respond to his colleagues’ inquiries.
This isn’t fiction. It happened to one of us. We are researchers with a keen interest in how race comes into play during day-to-day interactions with police both in and outside of college campuses.
Outsiders on campus
College campuses are often thought of as safe spaces and commonly regarded as forward-thinking environments. However, as our anecdote and recent events demonstrate, merely being a student or even a faculty member does not always equate to acceptance and inclusion, particularly if the student or professor is a member of a minority group on campus.
Consider, for instance, two recent incidents on college campuses that involved racial profiling by proxy – that is, instances where police are summoned to a situation by a biased caller. One incident took place in Colorado on the campus of Colorado State University during a campus visit and tour. Two prospective students, who were Native Americans males, were accused of acting “odd” due to their quiet disposition and clothing by a parent of another student on the campus tour. Due to her heightened suspicions, she called the police on the two teens. The other incident took place in Connecticut on the campus of Yale University. In this instance, a white student called the police on a black female graduate student who took a nap while writing a paper in their dorm’s common room.
Both cases serve to show how racial micro- and macro-aggressions aren’t limited to neighborhoods. They surface on college and university campuses as well. These recent incidents come not even two years after the hashtag #BlackOnCampus flooded Twitter, exposing the daily occurrences of racism experienced by black students, and leading to protests focused on race relations on over 50 college campuses.
Campuses have often been described as “microcosms of society,” so these incidents send a troubling message that the racist attitudes and behaviors that were part and parcel of American history endure in the present. They also highlight the need to move beyond policies addressing the legal restrictions that historically limited access to spaces and places to certain racial groups. Moving beyond this negative aspect of our nation’s past requires a shift in the current discussion from one that focuses on law enforcement and campus safety towards one in which we candidly discuss shared historical fallacies about the much-maligned “other.” This unpacking necessitates an understanding of how we, as a society, got to where we are today.
The myth of black criminality
From a historical perspective, American society was based on social constructions of race, ethnicity, gender and other identities. As a result, an American narrative that defined being different from the majority as deviant became embedded within the framework of American society, as well as the nation’s legal system. One example of this that appeared after the Civil War was the enactment of the black codes, which greatly restricted blacks’ labor and movement. The different-as-deviant narrative still affects American society to this day. Public policies and governmental actions have often reinforced these notions of “otherness” by marginalizing those who are considered undeserving and uncapable.
Human beings have often been described as having an affinity for myths. One myth that continues to permeate society is known as Black Crimmythology – or the myth that conflates blackness or otherness with criminality. Black Crimmythology, as the converging legacy of the social construction of race and the stigma that accompanies it, continues to blemish our society. As such, it has a constraining limiting effect that impacts a person’s meaning, destiny and value – all based upon their physical appearance.
Political constructions are public policies that were created to reinforce the social construction of Black Crimmythology. Public policies – both before and after the Civil War – limited the spaces and places to which blacks and other people of color had access, with criminalizing effects. Implementing Black Crimmythology and the policies that legally reinforced it required the assistance of public servants – that is, law enforcement officers – and the support of white citizens who made up the dominant class.
The incidents at Colorado State University and Yale University highlight how all these things – race or Black Crimmythology, practices of contemporary police officers and “support” from members of the dominant racial group – resulted in a negative interaction or encounter. The police were called to address each caller’s implicit or explicit bias or prejudiced anxieties. These incidents reflect the lasting nature of the old narrative of defining one who is different as deviant, even during what some have described as our post-racial or post-black society.
Toward ‘brave’ spaces
In order to make progress and lessen the potential for negative encounters between members of minority groups and campus police, society must be willing to enter into brave spaces – that is, spaces where people find the courage to risk engaging in uncomfortable and unsettling dialogue around issues of race and racism.
This effort requires more than just acknowledging the pain of others, but actually acting upon it.
One tool that can help in this regard is the Handy Guide for Objective Threat Evaluation developed by Hobart Taylor and utilized by the University of California-Irvine Police Department. This tool asks that prior to calling the police, members of the public should ask themselves a series of questions: Does someone seem suspicious because of something that they are doing? Does someone seem suspicious because of how they are behaving? Or, is it because of their appearance? If it is because of their appearance and not because of their behavior, the assessment advises not to call.
This tool was created to help the public identify when situations and incidents necessitate calling the police. If the callers at Colorado State and Yale would have followed this guide, officers never would have been called in the first place.
Modeled after the international advisories issued by the U.S. State Department, the NAACP statement cautioned travelers of color about the “looming danger” of discrimination, harassment and violence at the hands of Missouri law enforcement, businesses and citizens.
The civil rights organization’s action had been partly prompted by the state legislature’s passage of what the NAACP called a “Jim Crow bill,” which increased the burden of proof on those bringing lawsuits alleging racial or other forms of discrimination.
But they were also startled by a 2017 report from the Missouri attorney general’s office showing that black drivers were stopped by police at a rate 85 percent higher than their white counterparts. The report also found that they were more likely to be searched and arrested.
Although they ceased publication some 50 years ago, the guidebooks are worth reflecting on in light of the fact that for drivers of color, the road remains anything but open.
The half-open road
In American popular culture, movies (1983’s “National Lampoon’s “Vacation”), literature (“On the Road”), music (the 1946 hit “Route 66”) and advertising have long celebrated the open road. It’s a symbol of freedom, a rite of passage, an economic conduit – all made possible by the car and the Interstate Highway System.
Yet this freedom – like other freedoms – has never been equally distributed.
While white drivers spoke, wrote and sang about the sense of excitement and escape they felt on automobile journeys through unfamiliar territories, African-Americans were far more likely to dread such a journey.
Especially in the South, whites’ responses to black drivers could range from contemptuous to deadly. For example, one African-American writer recalled in 1983 how, decades earlier, a South Carolina policemen had fined and threatened to jail her cousin for no reason other than the fact that she had been driving an expensive car. In 1948, a mob in Lyons, Georgia, attacked an African-American motorist named Robert Mallard and murdered him in front of his wife and child. That same year, a North Carolina gas station owner shot Otis Newsom after he had asked for service on his car.
Such incidents weren’t confined to the South. Most of the thousands of “sundown towns” – municipalities that barred people of color after dark – were north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Of course, not all white people, police and business owners behaved cruelly toward travelers of color. But a black individual or family traveling the country by car would have had no way of knowing which towns and businesses were amenable to black patrons and visitors, and which posed a grave threat. The only certainties for African-Americans on the road were anxiety and vulnerability.
‘A book badly needed’
“Would a Negro like to pursue a little happiness at a theatre, a beach, pool, hotel, restaurant, on a train, plane, or ship, a golf course, summer or winter resort?” the NAACP magazine The Crisis asked in 1947. “Would he like to stop overnight in a tourist camp while he motors about his native land ‘Seeing America First’? Well, just let him try!”
Despite the dangers, try they did. And they had help in the form of guidebooks that told them how to evade and thwart Jim Crow.
“The Negro Motorist’s Green Book,” first published in 1936 by a New York letter carrier and travel agent named Victor Green, and “Travelguide: Vacation and Recreation Without Humiliation,” first published in 1947 by jazz bandleader Billy Butler, advised black travelers where they could eat, sleep, fill the gas tank, fix a flat tire and secure a myriad of other roadside services without fear of discrimination. The guidebooks, which covered every state in the union, drew upon knowledge hard-won by pioneering black salesmen, athletes, clergy and entertainers, for whom long-distance travel by car was a professional necessity.
Acknowledging the era’s racial tensions and dangers of travel, the 1956 edition reminded drivers to “behave in a way to show we’ve been nicely bred and [were] taught good manners.”
It pointed to certain states that would be more amenable to black travelers: “Visitors to New Mexico will find little if any racial friction there. The majority of the scores of motels across the State accepts guests on the basis of ‘cash rather than color.’”
Yet even as they sought to ease the black traveler’s passage through an America in which racial discrimination was the norm, the guidebooks, whose covers often featured well-heeled travelers of color with upscale automobiles and accessories, also asserted African-Americans’ claims to full citizenship.
The guidebooks’ images and text conveyed an attitude of indignation and resistance to the racist conditions that made them necessary.
In 1955, “Travelguide” declared, “The time is rapidly approaching when TRAVELGUIDE will cease to be a ‘specialized’ publication, but as long as racial prejudice exists, we will continue to cope with the news of a changing situation, working toward the day when all established directories will serve EVERYONE.”
Is racial terror really over?
Travelguide and the Green Book did indeed shut down in the 1960s, when the civil rights movement sparked a profound transformation in racial law and custom across the country.
Today, copies can be found in research archives at Howard University, the New York Public Library and the Library of Congress. The guidebooks have been the focus of a growing body of print and digital scholarship. The University of South Carolina, for example, has built an interactive map that allows visitors to search for all of the businesses listed in the 1956 edition of the “Green Book.”
While the story of these books recall an era of prejudice many regard as bygone, there remains much work to be done.
The NAACP’s decision to issue a travel advisory calls attention to the dangers that continue to be associated with “driving while black.” The highly publicized recent deaths of Sandra Bland, Philando Castile and Tory Sanford are the starkest examples of what can happen to black drivers at the hands of police. Studies have shown that across the nation, police are still much more likely to stop and search drivers of color.
If guidebooks for drivers of color are unlikely to make a return, it is because the internetnow fulfillstheir role, not because the “great day” of racial equality the “Green Book” heralded 70 years ago has arrived.