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.
ROAD TO REDEMPTION: Rodney King, 47, was found dead in his swimming pool on Sunday, June 17. In April, he was a featured author at the LA Times Festival of Books, where he discussed his autobiography, 'The Riot Within.' (Photo: Susan J. Rose/Newscom)
Rodney King’s untimely death over the weekend has led to a lot of conversations about his significance as a key civil rights figure. King, of course, gained fame for the 1991 videotaped beating by Los Angeles cops that he endured and the subsequent race riot that followed in 1992 after the officers were acquitted of any wrongdoing. He then became an unlikely voice of reason when, in the midst of the deadly and destructive rioting, he famously asked, “Can we all just get along?” Sadly, that question still echoes today after each new racially charged issue or controversy that erupts in the media.
But what will be King’s lasting legacy? By his own admission, he was not a perfect man. In fact, drunk driving and alleged substance abuse were the reasons he was pulled over by the L.A. cops initially in 1991, and he continued to struggle with drugs and alcohol apparently until the night of his death. In a Los Angeles Times post, reporter Ken Streeter recalls his series of interviews with King this year and confirms that King was still drinking and still smoking pot (he said for medical reasons).
So, King doesn’t exactly fit the classic image of the heroic civil rights icon. Yet, he stands as an important symbol in our nation’s uneasy saga of racial unrest and our stutter steps toward reconciliation.
“The King beating and trial set in motion overdue reforms in the LAPD and that had a ripple effect on law enforcement throughout the country,” Cannon explains. Indeed, under L.A. police Chief William Bratton in the 2000s, the department began focusing on community policing, hired more minority officers, and worked to heal tensions between the police and minority communities who continued to protest racial profiling and excessive use of force.
In the post-Rodney King world, adds Cannon, “It became more perilous to pull someone over for driving while black.”
To his credit, King was well aware of his shortcomings and shared his story in an autobiography released earlier this year to mark the 20th anniversary of the L.A. riots. In The Riot Within: My Journey from Rebellion to Redemption, King came clean about his failures and his continued struggles with alcohol addiction, but also about how God had helped him begin to turn his life around.
In a poignant interview with the Canadian public radio program Q with Jian Ghomeshi, King talked about his book and expressed optimism about both his own future and the state of race relations in the United States.
What do you view as Rodney King’s legacy? What does his complicated journey say about race relations in America? Will he rightly be remembered a civil rights icon?
I still remember the first time it happened. I was dropping off my 17-year-old cousin at a friend’s house in the wealthy, white Massachusetts suburb in which I lived and where my father is still a professor. We knocked on the wrong door. Minutes later, I was pulled over by the police. Slight, young and scared, I was interrogated about my activities, whether I was delivering drugs and what I was up to.
I remembered. My parents had sat me down months before when I got my license.
It doesn’t matter that you’re female. It doesn’t matter that you’re an honors student. It doesn’t matter that you’ve never been in trouble a day in your life. It doesn’t matter that you are leaving to start attending Stanford this fall. When most of these police officers see you, all they will see is a young black girl and that can be dangerous. So, when you are harassed — and you will be — try to stay calm. Try not to be afraid, and call us as soon as you can.
A black teenager’s rite of passage.
Since then I, a minivan-driving soccer mom of three, have been stopped because I “looked suspicious.” My husband, a partner in a Dallas law firm, has watched white women clutch their purses in the elevator out of fear of him. One of my best friends from college, a Wall Street banker, was stopped last year after leaving a midweek choir rehearsal at his church and arrested for “looking suspicious” in his own tony Westchester suburb, and was forced to spend the night in jail. And my 26-year-old brother-in-law, a Princeton honors graduate, an ordained minister, and a Habitat for Humanity staff member living in Harlem, was stopped and questioned while walking home from work by four white police officers just six weeks ago because they thought “he looked suspicious — like he was looking into a van.” Thank God none of us were shot out of “self-defense” since our brown skin made us look so “suspicious.”
I am scared. It is not a new fear, but one that has never gone away and is heightened as I look at my three beautiful boys. These precious ones, for whom my husband and I have lovingly and willingly sacrificed much; with whom I have stayed up countless nights, wiping noses and reading bedtime stories; for whom I have visited dozens of schools and spent hours of research, trying to secure them the best education; in short, the sons for whom I have given my life could find themselves in danger through no fault of their own.
Now they are growing up from babies into fine young men. And that should be nothing but pure joy. Yet, in our society, that also means new danger for them. Not just from the random violence that can touch any life, but due to the particular violence that is visited upon black boys — especially as they begin to look like young men.
We have to prepare them for what they will encounter because of someone else’s perception of what they are, based on media images that portray black boys and men as predators, pimps, and thugs — even though my sons have no personal reference for this. No, the black men in their lives are loving, responsible, and hardworking fathers, uncles, teachers, and friends who model courage and conviction, values and virtue, family and faith.
So, how could Trayvon Martin’s tragic slaying last month in Florida not break my heart, trouble my soul, and compel me to action? How can it be that, a month later, his shooter has not even been charged with a crime? How can it be that we live in a country that we fight to defend, but where the taking of our sons’ lives does not even warrant their killers’ arrest? How can it be that this child’s life was taken simply because he was walking while black? How can this be the America that I love?
Sadly, so little has changed.
My well-meaning white friends have no idea why so many African Americans distrust or fear the police who have vowed to protect and serve. And they have no idea what it is like for black parents to have to prepare their children to deal with a public that often still judges them by the color of their skin. They are so committed to the idea that we live in a color-blind society that it is hard for them even to perceive, let alone help change, the reality that impacts our lives and the lives of our children daily.
I learned in law school, and it is still true today, that it is the color of the victim, not the perpetrator, that is one of the greatest determinants in criminal sentencing. The harshest penalties are given for crimes against white women and the least harsh, even for the same crimes, are meted out when the victim is “only” black.
So, I can’t make nice. I can’t pretend. The murder of Trayvon Martin could be the murder of any black boy going to the store for iced tea and candy, including my sons.
The clock is ticking, and justice has not been served. The clock is ticking, and my boys will be young black men soon.
The clock is ticking, and my husband and I must prepare to have the same talk with them that our parents had with us: You are bright. You are funny and smart and sometimes silly. Your laughter and smiles fill up the room when you enter. And your warmth and your hugs fill my heart with more happiness and joy than any one person has a right to expect in one lifetime. You are capable of being anything you want to be in this life — even President of the United States. But when you walk out of the safety, protection and loving arms of our home, you are walking while black, and only our prayers can protect you then.
On Sunday, February 26, 2012, Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old, was shot and killed by George Zimmerman in Sanford, Florida. Zimmerman, a 28-year-old man, argues that he was acting in self-defense. Incredibly, Mr. Zimmerman has not yet been arrested. However, due to the organizing efforts of his parents, civil rights groups, MSNBC shows, and concerned citizens, the latest racialized miscarriage of our criminal justice system is now getting the widespread attention that it deserves. On Monday, March 20th, it was announced that the U.S. Department of Justice and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) are embarking upon an independent investigation into the causes and circumstances of Mr. Martin’s death. Many important commentaries have been written on the death of Trayvon Martin: in particular, Mark Jefferson’s piece on the Urban Cusp merits special attention.
My aim in writing about Mr. Martin emerges from a threefold motivation. First, Christians ought to publicly lament when a young black man receives a death-dealing blow — or in this case, gunshot — due to an unjustifiable use of force. The occasion for lament intensifies when one considers that local law enforcement, as of today, has not yet arrested Mr. Zimmerman. This apparent disregard for one of our most cherished legal precepts — equal justice under the law — is a principal reason why Mr. Martin’s family, along with hundreds of thousands of citizens across this nation, are protesting and petitioning on behalf of Trayvon Martin. While all of the relevant facts of the situation are not in, it seems highly probable that engaging an unarmed teenager with deadly force will exceed any legal appeal to self-defense. Lament, as Old Testament scholar Walter Bruggemann notes, is a profound, prophetic indication that something is out of joint socially — a visible acknowledgement that God’s just and peaceable dream of shalom has been shattered in the world. Speaking frankly, a multiracial lament concerning the murder of Mr. Martin might help reduce the cynicism many black and brown Christians harbor about where racial justice stands within evangelical movements for racial reconciliation.
Second, Mr. Martin’s parents have started a petition that merits signing. I encourage you to read about the particulars of his case and consider offering your support.
Thirdly, if you reside in the Greater New York City area, I invite you to attend “A Million Hoody March,” which will be held at Union Square starting this evening at 6 o’clock. The hoody signifies Mr. Martin’s article of clothing at the time of his death.
In the case of Trayvon Martin, the moral arc of Florida’s criminal justice system is bending towards injustice. We can, if we will, play a part in tilting it towards justice.
Click here to read and sign the petition demanding that justice be done in the Trayvon Martin case.
DEMANDING A RESPONSE: College students and citizens rallied today at the Seminole County Courthouse in Sanford, Florida, to demand the arrest of a neighborhood watch captain who shot Trayvon Martin, an unarmed African American teen. (Photo: Red Huber/Newscom)
On Feb. 26, a black teenager named Trayvon Martin was walking through a gated community in Sanford, Florida, when 28-year-old neighborhood watch leader George Zimmerman called the police to report him as a suspicious person. Zimmerman confronted Martin, despite being directed by police to stop following the teenager.
This morning, in a story about Florida college students protesting the fact that Zimmerman has still not been arrested, the Orlando Sentinel reported what happened next:
Zimmerman then stepped out of his SUV, while still on the phone with police, and followed the teenager on foot. The phone call ended, but the two somehow came face to face on a sidewalk; there was a fight, and [17-year-old] Trayvon wound up dead on the ground, a single gunshot to the chest. When police arrived, they found Zimmerman standing near him, blood coming from injuries to his nose and the back of his head, according to a police report. The back of his shirt also was wet and had grass clippings on it. A 911 caller described the fight as two people wrestling. A 13-year-old boy who witnessed part of the fight said he saw Zimmerman on the ground and heard someone calling for help. Zimmerman told police that was him. Lawyers for Trayvon’s family say it was the high school junior.
What has many people outraged is not only the volunteer crime fighter’s deadly actions, but also the Florida law that has thus far given him legal cover.
In 2005, Florida passed “one of the nation’s strongest so-called ‘stand your ground’ self-defense laws,” according to CBS News. The law allows a person to use deadly force if he or she “reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.”
Martin didn’t have to actually pose a threat to Zimmerman. Zimmerman just had to feel threatened by the teenager who had gone out to buy some Skittles and an ice tea, according to news reports.
At a press conference on Friday, the victim’s father, Tracy Martin, said Zimmerman could not have acted in self defense. “What was [Trayvon] gonna do, attack him with a bag of Skittles?” he asked. This morning on The Today Show, Trayvon’s mother, Sybrina Fulton, said Zimmerman was “reacting to” the color of her son’s skin. “He committed no crime. My son wasn’t doing anything but walking on the sidewalk, and I just don’t understand why this situation got out of control,’’ she said.
Meanwhile, 13-year-old Austin McLendon “hasn’t been the same” since he heard the altercation that led to Martin’s death, The Huffington Post reported. McLendon “was standing less than 20 yards away from Martin when he was shot,” but “didn’t see much that night.” His mother told The Huffington Post that her son is upset about reports that said “a 13-year-old witness has claimed Zimmerman, and not Martin, was screaming for help” when both she and her son “are adamant that the teen could not see who was screaming.”
Trayvon’s parents have organized a petition at Change.org asking Florida’s 18th District State’s Attorney to investigate Tayvon’s “murder” and to prosecute Zimmerman for it. The petition describes their son as a hero, who, at nine years old, pulled his father from a burning kitchen. The grieving parents have also asked the FBI to investigate, ABC News reported.
Two other rallies are planned for this week, the Orlando Sentinel reported, and both the FBI and the U.S. Justice department have gotten involved, even as the Sanford police chief continues to defend his department’s investigation.
Zimmerman targeted “young black men who appeared to be outsiders,” The Miami Herald reported. He also “called police 46 times since Jan. 1, 2011 to report disturbances, break-ins, windows left open and other incidents” and was known to be strict, according to one teenager.
In a letter to the Orlando Sentinel, however, Zimmerman’s father, Robert Zimmerman, said his son is not a racist, but is Hispanic and grew up in a multi-racial family. “He would be the last to discriminate for any reason whatsoever …,” the letter reportedly said. “The media portrayal of George as a racist could not be further from the truth.”
At The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates has been following the case closely, and his colleague James Fallows commended him for his efforts, noting though that the story isn’t just a “black story” about race relations. “It’s about self-government, rule of law, equality before the law, accountability of power, and every other value that we contend is integral to the American ideal.” Thus one might wonder why, if Think Progress is correct, Fox News has only broadcast one story about the case, while CNN has broadcast 41 and MSNBC has broadcast 13. A site search of Trayvon Martin’s name at National Review also came up empty, as did one at The Weekly Standard. Don’t conservatives care about these issues?
What Do you think?
Is the Trayvon Martin case about more than racial profiling?