Monday, June 8, 2015

Swimming While Black and the Persistence of Racial Stereotypes

The other night, there was some noise in my neighborhood; loud music, loud voices, not what generally happens in this quiet, suburban part of Quincy, MA.  A group of high school kids had just graduated, and they evidently were having a party (or so it seemed, based on the noise level).  One of the neighbors must have called the police to complain, because a patrol car came by our street and soon, the noise stopped. But there were no gunshots, no tasers, and no shouting at the kids to get on the ground or face arrest.  In fact, from what I can gather (it was dark, the party was up the street from where I live), the party either dispersed or the kids decided to calm down.  It was another happy ending to a story of overly exuberant suburban teens and their encounter the local police.  Oh-- I forgot to mention-- the kids were white, the neighborhood was mainly white, and the police were probably white too.  

Contrast that with what happened the other day in McKinney, Texas.  Exuberant black kids having a graduation celebration at a community swimming pool, making noise (as party-goers often do) and acting like... well... kids.  Evidently, that was a problem for some of the white residents, based on the complaint received by the police.  The report read in part that there were"multiple juveniles at the location, who do not live in the area or have permission to be there, refusing to leave."  Umm, I have no clue whether the teens making noise in our neighborhood last week were from our area, and I don't know if they had permission to be there-- I assume that someone invited them, but I didn't think about whether they lived in Quincy, and I doubt the police thought about it either. They just wanted the noise level lowered.  In fact, I'm puzzled by the McKinney police report-- how did the residents who complained have any idea the teens "didn't belong there"-- could it be because they were the wrong color?  Echoes of the excuses made by George Zimmerman about Trayvon Martin come to mind-- Trayvon, walking down the street with a soda and some candy, was "up to no good" and "didn't belong there" according to Mr. Zimmerman, who took it upon himself to follow the young black man who dared to walk in a predominantly white neighborhood at night.  And here we go again-- a large and noisy group of black teens at a swimming pool don't belong there, and so, they must be up to no good.

The outrage on the blogosphere was predictable too.  While liberal websites defended the black teens and accused the police of over-reacting, conservative websites immediately began throwing around the word "thugs."  Some sites claimed the teens were smoking marijuana and fighting. Others claimed that they were intimidating (white) people trying to use the pool.  But witnesses, both black and white, noted that much of the trouble was started by certain white residents who insulted the black teens, telling them they belonged in jail, that they ought to go back to the housing projects (as if every black kid comes from the projects), and making other disparaging remarks.  Fortunately, nobody was killed, but disturbing videos emerged-- especially one of an (unarmed) black girl in a bathing suit being thrown to the ground by an officer.  I don't care how mouthy she may have gotten, and yes, teens can and do get mouthy said Donna, who used to be a step-mom and knows this first-hand.  But I doubt that the young black girl deserved to be harshly thrown to the ground, and I also doubt that any of the white kids in my neighborhood would ever be treated that way.

And speaking of the fact that I am white, I too have witnessed racial profiling of black kids who were doing absolutely nothing wrong:  for example, several years ago, I was a Big Sister. My Little Sister was a truly adorable ten year old black girl; she was also polite and well-behaved, no matter where I took her, and as those of you with kids know, ten-year-olds do not always behave.  Anyway, one day we went to a department store to do some shopping. I needed to buy some office supplies, as I recall. My Little Sister wanted to look at clothes, so I told her to go ahead. But as she walked over to that department, I noticed that store security had begun to follow her.  This puzzled me.  I watched for a minute or two and then decided to intervene.  I told the security officer she was with me, and that seemed to make it all right-- but it still bothered me.  Evidently, any black kid in a store is a potential shop-lifter... just like any black kid at a community swimming pool is a potential thug. 

I know that police don't have an easy job. And I know that some kids, of both colors, can exhibit thuggish behavior. But I also know that in 2015, it's shameful that some white people, including some members of law enforcement, still assume that black kids are automatically suspicious if they are in the "wrong neighborhood" at the "wrong time."  Such racist assumptions can lead to tragic consequences: unnecessary arrests, unprovoked beatings, and in some cases, such as what happened to Tamir Rice, death at a very young age.  Tamir was only twelve and playing with a BB gun.  But he was black and he "looked suspicious," perhaps even dangerous. And so, the police shot him to death, seconds after the police car spotted him.  They had received a complaint that there was a juvenile in the park with a gun, and though the complainant said the gun might be a fake (and it was), that was enough for a police officer to get out of the car and shoot Tamir dead.

I don't expect the rhetoric on the blogosphere to die down at any time soon, but whatever side of the issue you are on, surely we can all agree that throwing around the word "thug" and making unfounded accusations isn't helping to improve the situation.  Neither are the persistent racist assumptions that every black kid walking or riding or swimming in a predominantly white neighborhood is "up to no good."  I often quote my favorite philosopher, Emmanuel LĂ©vinas, who called upon us to look into the face of 'the other' -- get to know the person as a human being, rather than making assumptions based on race or social class or other superficial metrics.  Sadly, in many parts of society we seem to have re-segregated ourselves, such that we stay mainly in our own little enclaves, surrounded by people who look like us.  In fact, one study from last year showed that as many as 3/4 of white people have no black friends at all.   It seems obvious that if you never get to know "them," you will be suspicious whenever "they" are in your neighborhood. And I wonder what Martin Luther King Jr. would think about what has happened since his death:  in some ways, we have indeed come so far, but in others, it seems we have a long way to go.

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