On “Black” and “White” and Law Enforcement

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Some time ago I was awakened at 2:00 a.m. by the sound of people brawling outside of my house. I walked toward the sound, peaked out of my front window, and saw a large group of people in the middle of the street in front of my house.  I heard more yelling, breaking glass. Someone kept screaming, “I’ll fucking kill you! I’ll fucking kill you!”

I dialed 911.  I described to the operator the things I had seen and heard and asked her to send someone out to break up the fight. But she needed more information.

“What color are they?” she asked.

“What?” I said.

“Are they black or white?” she said.

“Why does that matter?” I asked.

I was confused and annoyed. I think my tone of voice reflected this. The operator hung up on me. I waited inside my home for an hour, unable to sleep, listening to the people outside shouting death threats and expletives at each other. The noise moved up the street away from my house, died down completely, started up again with only a couple of voices, and ended up in my neighbor’s yard.  I peeked out the side window and saw my neighbor stick his head out of his front door and speak sternly to the two or three men standing near the bushes next to his front porch. The men walked away, and things were quiet for the rest of the night. Before I went back to sleep, I checked the time. It was 3:35 a.m., and in the time that had passed, no police officer had shown up on the scene. This was particularly odd because I lived within four blocks of a police station.  I still wonder if the 911 operator decided to disregard my call because I refused to play the “black/white” race-labeling game.

I had not meant to be difficult. When she asked about the color of the angry mob, I was truly confused. Partly due to the fact that I was drowsy from being awakened prematurely and partly due to the fact that it didn’t even occur to me to take note of the ethnicity of members of the angry crowd, I truly didn’t understand what the operator meant. When she clarified “black or white,” it occurred to me too in that moment that I had not noticed the skin tone of any of the people. In order to answer her question I would have to go back to the window and try to ascertain what skin tones I could see under the eerie glow of the streetlamps and then, based on that info, determine if the police would categorize these guys as “black” or “white.” It also occurred to me that the information that was necessary for helping the police to identify the group I had already provided. When one considers that this was a group of at least ten people, standing in the middle of the street, standing directly in front of my house (I had provided my address), and screaming obscenities at each other, the skin color or ethnicity of the individuals seems irrelevant. I doubt that if I had said “white” and the men turned out to be “black,” the police would have driven past them in search of a “white” mob. Their color did not matter, so why did she ask the question?

Why is it important for law enforcement to racialize suspects? One might argue that determining whether a potential suspect is “black” or “white” is just practical. Cops need physical descriptions of people in order to know whom they’re trying to find. This explanation is unsatisfying when one considers that “black” and “white” are not physical descriptions of any human being. Notice the difference between the two questions posed by the 911 operator. She first asked for “color,” which would be a physical description. She then asked if the people were “black or white,” no longer asking for a physical description. Humans do not come in those colors.

Human beings can be described as having a range of skin tones: very dark brown, dark brown, medium brown, light brown, dark tan, tan, light tan, peach, pink, beige, and everything in between. “White” is the color of copier paper or the dry-erase board in a college classroom or snow. “Black” is the color of the space between the stars in the night sky or the fur of a panther. “Black” people do not exist. “White” people do not exist.

On college campuses, when someone is assaulted by a brown-skinned assailant, the reports will warn the campus community that the assailant was “black.” On one campus, bulletins were posted in the campus buses describing an alleged rapist as “black” and accompanied by one of those police sketches that manage to look simultaneously like everyone you’ve ever met and no one you’ve ever met. Once I heard a campus police alert about a “black male wearing a yellow sweatshirt.” This seemed to me highly ineffective because the suspect could simply dispose of the yellow sweatshirt in order to merge inconspicuously into the larger group of “black” males on the campus and in the city. Of course, this is not how such a description really works for law enforcement. It is not intended to identify an individual but rather to point the finger at the group. This type of race-labeling as a substitute for actual physical description is used to justify the harassment of scores of African-American and Latino men who have skin any shade of brown.

How do we stop this?

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One thought on “On “Black” and “White” and Law Enforcement

    quinn said:
    January 8, 2014 at 6:18 pm

    Very interesting article. Hopefully it’ll get people to really think about this issue.

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