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Time to expose an ugly truth

It’s getting familiar and, pardon my language, but it’s getting too damn familiar.

A black person is minding their own business. Someone, lately it’s been a woman, notices them and calls the cops.

This latest event took place Monday at no less than the ivy walls of one of America’s most prestigious institutions: Yale University in Connecticut. A black graduate student, probably stressed and fatigued from cramming for exams and/or writing term papers, was discovered napping in her dormitory’s common room. A woman who also lives in the dorm noticed the sleeping student, told her she was not supposed to be there, and called campus security.

Maybe you know what came next: cellphone video that’s later uploaded to Facebook, and within seconds, it’s gone viral. More than a half-million views.

The student politely displayed to the campus police her room key and unlocks her apartment; the officers press her to produce identification, while she asks them whether their request is justified. Once the officers verify her identity, they leave.

Just the latest chapter in a string of high-profile incidents that have exposed a troubling, often-overlooked truth about racial discrimination in this country.

While there’ve been movements, Black Lives Matter comes to mind, that focus on police brutality in black communities, usually involving white male police officers’ violence against black men, sometimes with deadly results, there are three incidents in particular that’ve garnered the most attention for the past three weeks. They all involve the role women, white women in particular, play in encounters between the police and black Americans. Whether it’s at a big-city Starbucks Restaurant, a suburban California Airbnb, or now the hallowed halls of academia, the news cycle highlights stories of someone who felt threatened by the mere presence of a black person in a public space and called the cops.

A woman peers out her window, spots three black women checking out of their Airbnb rental and called the police. Seven police cars showed up; police instruct the women to put their hands in the air, and even tell them that a police helicopter was circling above observing them. The officers let the women leave once they showed their Airbnb booking confirmations and phoned the home’s landlord, who told the police they were indeed guests, and not burglars.

Last month, two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks after a female employee called the cops. Their crime? Sitting at a table and waiting for a friend. These guys were held for nine hours and eventually released with no charges being filed.

There’s a history here. Back at the turn of the 20th century, the distinguished journalist/activist Ida B. Wells called it “the old threadbare lie”, one that white Southerners used to justify lynching: that innocent white women needed to be protected from mythically dangerous black men.

Here in the 21st century it’s a new strategy, still designed to protect white women, but one that relies now on constant surveillance, threatened incarceration and the oppression of black men.

But there is redemption. It comes in the form of speaking out against this injustice. Make up your mind not to be a bystander when these types of outrages take place right in front of you. Call it out for the wrong it entails.

Someone seems to always step up and film these incidents. Maybe they wouldn’t have to if another someone’s paranoia didn’t make them call 911 in the first place.

The most common way people give up their power, someone once said, is by thinking you don’t have any. Maybe these latest incidents of racial profiling suggest that these callers may be in for a powerful reckoning about how their ideas about who, and what, is dangerous can actually put other people’s safety at risk.

 

Gene Motley is a Staff Writer at Roanoke-Chowan Publications. Contact him at gene.motley@r-cnews.com or 252-332-7211.