clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Living While Black and the criminalization of blackness

White people calling 911 on black people for things like napping and sitting in Starbucks points to a deeper problem.

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

A woman protests at a Philadelphia Starbucks following the arrest of two black men in April 2018. The arrest became the first in a wave of stories about black people being racially profiled.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Image

On April 12, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson entered a Philadelphia Starbucks to meet with a business partner. But after waiting less than 10 minutes for him, they found themselves surrounded by police, facing charges of trespassing and creating a disturbance.

Their crime? Asking to use the restroom and sitting inside before placing an order.

That was all it took for the store’s manager to call the police, telling a 911 dispatcher that there were “two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave.” Police arrived shortly thereafter, and the two men, both black, were put in handcuffs.

Robinson later told Good Morning America that his first thought when he saw the police officers was, “They can’t be here for us.” Nelson told the Associated Press that he feared for his life.

“Anytime I’m encountered by cops, I can honestly say it’s a thought that runs through my mind,” Nelson added. “You never know what’s going to happen.”

What happened to Nelson and Robinson, and the social media outcry that followed, prompted Starbucks to shut down all 8,000 company-owned stores for a day of anti-bias training. Beyond that, the incident began a wave of stories sharing a common framework: A black or brown person, doing something innocuous or nothing at all, prompts a suspicious white person to call the police.

It’s created a seemingly endless stream of stories involving calls to police or 911 on people of color: A black child who mowed part of the wrong yard, a black family eating at Subway, an 8-year-old girl selling bottled water, a woman using the private pool in her gated community, a trio of filmmakers staying in an Airbnb, or a group of black women on a golf course. These are just some examples of a person or group being forced to defend their presence.

These stories and others have been published so frequently that they’ve formed a new news genre: “Living While Black,” a phrase that encompasses the myriad ways black people are viewed with suspicion, profiled, and threatened with responses from police for minor infractions, or less.

Collectively, they illustrate the ways people of color are subjected to arbitrary social expectations, and how violating those expectations is punishable. Decades after the collapse of legal segregation, they also show that spaces like clothing stores, coffee shops, neighborhoods, and universities remain strongly controlled along racial lines.

In many ways, the recent wave of Living While Black incidents highlights issues that go beyond the circumstances that fuel any single story. They speak to the intensification of racial tension in a political climate that has emboldened whites frustrated with a perceived loss of power and fueled fear and anxiety in communities of color.

The incidents also speak to the persistence of residential segregation and isolation, particularly of whites, and how that isolation simultaneously maintains and heightens white mistrust of nonwhite groups. And with many of these calls leading to requests for police intervention, they highlight the use of law enforcement to “manage” the behavior of African Americans. That’s fraught with menace because of the racial disparities in police use of force that make people of color more likely to encounter violence or harassment.

Much like the rise of Black Lives Matter and the videos of police violence that accompanied it, Living While Black offers evidence in real time that America is still grappling with long-held racial divisions. As the incidents continue, the deluge of footage is sparking a discussion about race and racism that focuses on the ways individual behavior can play into larger acts of systemic racism. It’s an important discussion driven by unfortunate circumstances. But it’s also a very old issue.

Racial profiling isn’t new, but Living While Black is calling new attention to it

At its core, Living While Black is about racial profiling, the concept that a person’s race or ethnicity makes them an object of suspicion and heightened scrutiny from law enforcement. From the use of slave patrols to lynching to legal segregation, and in modern iterations like stop and frisk, racial profiling has long been used to maintain white authority by singling out the presence and behavior of people of color — especially African Americans — as requiring punishment. These systems rely on the participation of bystanders and observers to alert authorities to those deemed “suspicious.”

So on one hand, what we are seeing now isn’t new. After all, it hasn’t even been 10 years since well-known Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates was accused of breaking into his own home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and charged with disorderly conduct when he protested.

But the current Living While Black incidents — captured on video and spread on social media — do make it easier for the broader public to see these calls to police. This phenomenon is similar to the spread of video documenting police violence and misconduct. By putting these incidents on camera, they serve as evidence, providing a digital record for those affected by profiling and a way of alerting a wider audience to the ways in which black behavior continues to be criminalized and subject to policing.

Robin DiAngelo, a sociologist and the author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, says these videos make it much more difficult for white people to deny that profiling has occurred. “These incidents have always happened, but white people do not always believe it because it doesn’t happen to us,” DiAngelo told me. “The only real difference we have now is that we are able to record it in a way that makes it undeniable.”

In doing so, the incidents highlight just how quickly a misplaced assumption or feeling uncomfortable can lead a white person to call the police. They also show how black people are continually asked to justify their presence in spaces where they are seen as not being the norm.

Take, for example, the story of Lolade Siyonbola, a black graduate student at Yale who woke from a nap in a dorm common room in May to questions from police. A white classmate had called 911, saying that she wasn’t sure if Siyonbola belonged in the dorm. When police officers arrived, Siyonbola unlocked her dorm room to prove her residence, but she was still asked for ID.

“I deserve to be here. I pay tuition like everybody else,” Siyonbola told police officers in a video posted to Facebook. “I’m not going to justify my existence here.”

The request to “justify my existence,” and the frustration that this sort of request creates, lies at the core of these incidents. Academics have noted that people of color, especially black people, are often asked to provide justification and proof when they enter spaces where they are in the minority. Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson explains that there is a difference between “white spaces,” where black people are often not present or exist in a limited number, and “black spaces,” communities and spaces occupied by larger numbers of black people.

Anderson notes that commonly held stereotypes of black people as being criminal and black behavior as being deviant strongly shape how they are viewed by others. As a result, black people in these “white spaces” are forced to justify their presence, and face consequences when that justification isn’t accepted by others.

“In the minds of many of their detractors, to scrutinize and stop black people is to prevent crime and protect the neighborhood,” he explained in “The White Space,” a 2015 paper published in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. “Thus, for the black person, particularly young males, virtually every public encounter results in a degree of scrutiny that a ‘normal,’ white person would certainly not need to endure.”

Research has shown that black people are often subjected to heightened scrutiny and suspicion, which begins in childhood. In 2014, researcher Phillip Goff found that by the age of 10, black boys begin to be seen as less innocent than their white peers. And a Georgetown study released in 2017 found that black girls as young as 5 are already perceived as more adult-like and less innocent than white girls of the same age.

It tracks with other data examining attitudes about race. A series of studies published by the American Psychological Association in 2017 have shown that black men are more often associated with violence than white men, and a 2015 study from researchers at the University of California Los Angeles found that just mentioning a “black-sounding” name is enough to conjure a mental image that is larger and more threatening than a “white-sounding” one.

It’s likely that the Living While Black incidents we hear about now reflect this sort of implicit, fear-driven, stereotype-laden thinking. But these incidents may also point to something else — like a more explicit desire to preserve racial hierarchies by casting people of color as deviants who can be removed at any moment.

In the US, “black people have only had dominion over their own bodies for a very short period of time,” DiAngelo said. These incidents, she said, suggest “that your body still doesn’t belong to you. That this is MY space, MY body, MY park.”

How Living While Black collides with policing

If the recent spate of incidents has sparked a conversation about why black people are met with so much suspicion in public, it’s important to ask why callers want police to respond to situations where they aren’t really needed.

The argument here is that when people call law enforcement for unnecessary reasons, they are adding to an existing problem, since minority groups are more likely to face police violence or harsh punishment from the justice system.

Police monitor a protest at Starbucks’s City Center location days after the arrest of Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson.
Mark Makela/Getty Images

You don’t need to look far for examples of how this can quickly take a turn for the worse. In 2015, white residents in McKinney, Texas, called police with a noise complaint against a group of black high schoolers holding a pool party. One adult allegedly told the teenagers to return to “Section 8 [public] housing.” When police arrived, a black girl was violently slammed to the ground and pinned by an officer. Residents later posted signs thanking the officers for “keeping us safe.”

In 2014, John Crawford was fatally shot by police inside an Ohio Walmart after a man called 911, telling the dispatcher that Crawford was pointing a gun at people. Crawford was holding a BB gun, and video footage later showed that he was not brandishing the weapon.

In early July, four black teenagers were detained by Minnesota police officers, including one officer who drew his weapon, after a woman called the police saying that the boys had knives and assaulted a white man in the park. The call was quickly shown to be false after police found no weapons.

Data from the Department of Justice has shown that people of color call the police less often than white people. Experts note that this difference is driven by a crucial perception: While white people see police as a force that will protect them, communities of color see a force that is more likely to do the opposite.

There’s a real reason for that. In addition to studies that reveal racial disparities in police use of force, data collected by the Guardian shows that black Americans are more likely than whites to be shot by police, when controlling for population.

High-profile incidents of police violence can further erode trust in law enforcement, and that trust can be difficult to regain. A 2016 study from a group of sociologists at Yale, Harvard, and Oxford found that after the 2004 police beating of Frank Jude in Milwaukee, residents made 17 percent fewer 911 calls the next year. And those numbers remained low even after the officers involved in the incident had been punished. Researchers found similar results after high-profile incidents of police brutality in other predominantly black communities. Those changes didn’t happen in white communities.

A deterioration in trust can happen even when a fatal police shooting isn’t involved. In 2013, political scientists Amy Lerman and Vesla Weaver examined the potential effects 311 non-emergency calls have on communities. Analyzing some 3 million 311 call records and 1.2 million police stops in New York City, they found that many of these calls, which are usually used to lodge complaints about minor issues like noise disturbances, were more likely to occur in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

While 311 data does not include information about the race of the caller, a recent report from BuzzFeed found that census tracts in gentrifying parts of New York City yielded more 311 calls than non-gentrifying ones, suggesting that these calls increase when the white population in a neighborhood increases.

Lerman and Weaver noted that how police handled these cases had a significant effect on perceptions of local institutions. “When police search a higher number of citizens or deploy more force in their stops of community members, people become much less likely” to interact with their local government. “Thus, the relationship turns on the quality of policing, not merely the quantity.”

Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown Law and the author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men, told me that one reason unnecessary 911 calls are so dangerous is that they put African Americans in unnecessary interactions with law enforcement. “When the police are called on African Americans, it has a very negative impact on those black people, even if they are not arrested, or beat up, or killed,” he said. “You’re required to justify your existence and your presence in a white space. It makes you feel like less of a citizen and less of a human being. It’s impossible to overstate the adverse consequences.”

Beyond the personal ramifications, these incidents can also affect a broader community. “The gulf between how black America and white America experience the police is vast,” Weaver, a researcher who examined 311 calls and now a professor at Johns Hopkins University, wrote for Vox in May. She pointed to a dynamic where black communities often struggle to get police to respond to calls for assistance, while white Americans continue to see police as worth calling due to their high response rates.

“Black people need to be able to trust that when they enlist the police, they get what whites get — police who show up, take their concerns seriously, and don’t further victimize or retaliate against the citizen,” she added.

The tensions in this phenomenon reveal anxiety among white people

Living While Black is, of course, taking place in a wider context. Four years ago, Black Lives Matter and the Movement for Black Lives sparked a national conversation about race and policing that laid the groundwork for the use of video and social media seen in Living While Black and increased knowledge of how policing affects black communities. But this new wave of videos is getting so much attention as heightened concerns about the treatment of immigrant communities, the rise of emboldened white supremacists, and an increase in hate crimes share the spotlight.

The story of Living While Black isn’t just about black people. It’s also about white people, their anxieties, and what that anxiety means for black people simply trying to navigate daily life.

Polling shows that white people’s thoughts about race aren’t accurate. They are overly optimistic about the progress of other groups; a 2017 Yale study, for example, found that white Americans dramatically overestimate the level of economic equality between black and white people, and other forms of racial equality in the US.

Polling also shows that whites believe they face as much, or even more discrimination than black Americans and other racial groups. In fact, according to a 2016 poll from the Public Religion Research Institute, 57 percent of whites and 66 percent of those identified as “white working class” in the poll, said that “discrimination against whites is as big a problem today as discrimination against blacks and other minorities.” A recent PRRI study found that roughly one-third of Americans and half of Republicans believe America’s growing racial diversity will have a negative impact on American society.

Perhaps it’s because many of those within this group are experiencing the feeling of being left behind, in part, because of the slow steady ascension of people of color. Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist and author of Strangers in Their Own Land, describes certain white Americans as feeling like they are standing in line that leads up a hill toward the endpoint, prosperity. But faced with globalization and income stagnation, they see marginalized people “cutting” the line with the help of programs like affirmative action or anti-discrimination laws. This also introduces more black and brown people into previously white-only spaces.

As Yale psychologist Jennifer Richeson recently told Vox’s Ezra Klein, this zero-sum framing can play a powerful role in whites’ political behavior, even if it doesn’t acknowledge that whites as a group still hold significant societal advantages. It isn’t much of a stretch to suggest that these attitudes likely fuel heightened distrust and animosity toward people of color. These anxieties, cranked up to an extreme in declarations that racial progress would result in so-called “white genocide,” create an even more dire perception of nonwhites and the way demographic change is affecting the country.

But there’s another issue here too: Whites are rarely discussed as a racial group. In fact, as Vox’s David Roberts noted recently, the very act of referring to white Americans as “white people” is enough to cause frustration, potentially because it serves as a reminder that whites also carry a racial identity.

In June, police were called on Reggie Fields, a 12-year-old Ohioan, after he accidentally mowed a small part of the wrong yard.

That failure to truly grapple with race helps reinforce a defensive understanding of race and its continued consequences. It’s part of why so many of the people calling police on a black person react to criticism with a simple response: “I’m not a racist.”

Take, for example, Linda Krakora, an Ohio woman whose husband called police after Reggie Fields, a black 12-year-old, mowed a small patch of their grass. When a Facebook video of the incident when viral, Krakora quickly defended herself and her family from accusations of racism, noting that she lived in a predominantly black community.

Another example lies in McKinney, the site of the aforementioned pool party in 2015. When the Atlantic’s Olga Khazan visited the town this year, she noted that several community members openly declined to discuss the incident. Those who did were often defensive when questioned about the role that race might have played in the encounter. “[Police] were called not because there were black people in the pool,” George Fuller, the mayor of McKinney, told Khazan. “They came ... because there were people trespassing, destroying property, and smoking dope.” (Khazan noted that police reports and 911 calls from the incident made no mention of drugs.)

DiAngelo told me that these defenses posit a “good-bad binary,” a framing that positions racism as an intentional act exclusively done by bad people. “It exempts virtually all white people from the system that we’re in,” she said. “As long as we think nice people can’t be racist, we’re going to protect the system.”

That failure to acknowledge the depths and breadth of racism also makes it harder to acknowledge the ways that nonwhite groups are exposed to harm by actions like calling the police. In the short term, the problem highlighted by Living While Black can be solved by white people calling the police less. But addressing the underlying issues will require much more than that.