Opinion: Reducing racial profiling depends on all of us
The post-9/11 mantra “If you see something, say something” appears to have taken an ugly turn these days. It used to relate to concerns about terrorism. If you saw an abandoned backpack or van, or if you discovered evidence that could be construed as bomb-related, the instruction was to immediately call police to investigate.
Today, citizens seem to have twisted that advice; they call police with the pettiest suspicions or complaints about people who don’t look like they look. Thanks to ever-present cellphone cameras, we can confirm several instances of racial profiling that have happened in just the last few weeks.
In Philadelphia, two young well-dressed black men entered a Starbucks for a business meeting with a third person. Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson did not immediately buy any coffee, and Nelson was denied permission to use the men’s room. While they waited, a clueless Starbucks manager called police to report they were trespassing. Video shows the two were completely compliant when police handcuffed them and led them out. Nelson later said he wondered if he would make it home alive.
The Starbucks manager was white. In all the cases I’m about to mention, prominent reporting indicates that whites call the police on blacks on a routine basis.
Nine days after the Starbucks incident and about two hours west of Philadelphia, employees at the Grandview Golf Club outside Harrisburg, Pa., called police twice for help. When officers arrived, they were told about five black women who had paid their membership dues, had their tee time delayed for an hour due to weather and then were allegedly playing the course too slowly. Presumably management wanted the women ejected, but officers quickly determined it was not a police matter. The women now believe they were victims of both racial and gender discrimination by employees of the golf course.
A week later, in Rialto, Calif., three black women were loading suitcases into their car outside a home they had rented through Airbnb. Suddenly, six police officers surrounded them, and a police helicopter hovered ominously overhead. The incident was spurred by a neighbor who called the police department reporting a suspected home burglary. In what world do women casually leaving a home and chatting as they walk to their car require such suspicion?
Next, let’s go to Brentwood, Mo., where earlier this month three teenage boys, all black, were doing some last-minute clothes shopping for prom. The teens said they were followed everywhere by store security while at a Nordstrom Rack department store. After making a purchase, they were met outside by local police officers who wanted to check their bags and receipts. Nordstrom security had summoned the cops on suspicion of shoplifting.
“The police were actually good,” one of the young men said. “They understood … they showed us that they were just doing their job.”
One more case in point comes from the prestigious campus of Yale University in New Haven, Conn. A black graduate student named Lolade Siyonbola was working on a “marathon of papers” and fell asleep in a dorm common area at 1:30 a.m. A fellow dorm student found her there, declared napping wasn’t allowed and called the campus police. Siyonbola was made to show her university ID and take officers to her room to prove that she really belonged there. Police ultimately told the white woman who called that it was not a police matter.
Waiting while black, golfing while black, renting while black, shopping while black and napping while black are not crimes.
I have an important question for each of those citizens who called police: If the suspected people were of your same race, would you still have dialed your local law enforcement or simply watched with the curiosity of a nosy neighbor?
It has become all too popular to accuse police officers of racial profiling. And certainly, that plays a role in the behavior of some who wear a badge. But this is a good opportunity to look inward and examine our own reactions to situations. We, the public, instigate a majority of the calls to which officers must respond. As we contemplate whether to call police about a “see something, say something” situation, are we also engaged in racial profiling?
In all the cases described here, the corporation, business or university has apologized to those who were confronted by officers while engaging in harmless, everyday activities. In some of the cases, settlements have been reached or lawsuits have been filed or threatened. But not all the falsely accused are looking for monetary gain to ease their humiliation. As one of the teens in the Brentwood incident put it, “I don’t want (Nordstrom) to fire anyone. … I want them to … make this a teaching moment and everybody move forward and get better.”
Amen to that.
— Diane Dimond is a columnist with Creators Syndicate.