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911 calls on black people were one of 2018’s biggest stories about race

Stories of “Living While Black” were a reminder of how public spaces are still controlled along racial lines.

A Starbucks manager called the police on two black men in April, kicking off a wave of stories about racial profiling this year.
A Starbucks manager called the police on two black men in April, kicking off a wave of stories about racial profiling this year.
Bastiaan Slabbers/NurPhoto via Getty Images

In 2018, news headlines were dominated by stories that followed a similar pattern: a black person is minding their own business in a public space when they are approached by a white person, who questions their right to be there.

Sometimes, the white person skips the middle part and anonymously calls the police.

From using a phone in a hotel lobby, trying to cash a check at a bank, to babysitting white children, mowing lawns, selling water, eating at Subway, sleeping in a college common room, and entering their own apartment buildings, this past year has brought us countless stories of black men, women, and children who were trying to go about their daily lives only to be interrupted by a stranger challenging their presence, challenges that often culminated in interaction with the police.

Being racially profiled for “Living While Black” is not exactly a new phenomenon. But the wave of coverage these types of incidents received this year was unprecedented.

National politics — along with a rise in reported hate crimes and a resurgence of white supremacist movements — has emboldened white people frustrated by their perceived loss of power to take out their fear and anxiety on communities of color.

The ubiquity of smartphones has made it easier to record these incidents than ever before, and the resulting media coverage revealed how much black life in America remains subject to close scrutiny and suspicion.

Racial profiling isn’t new. But viral stories of Living While Black called attention to it.

Eight months ago, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson entered a Philadelphia Starbucks to meet with a business partner. Minutes later, after a manager called 911 and told a dispatcher that there were “two gentlemen in my cafe that are refusing to make a purchase or leave,” they were surrounded by police.

The two men, both black, were put in handcuffs, and a video of their arrest went viral. They were quickly released from custody, but the fact that they were ever detained sparked national outrage.

The same month that Nelson and Robinson were arrested, a Pennsylvania golf club owner called the police on a group of black women, supposedly for golfing too slowly. Several teens shopping for prom at a Missouri Nordstrom Rack were accused of shoplifting. Two months later, a white family called the police on a black child for mowing part of the wrong yard.

These stories, and others like them, are part of a bigger story involving the ways that public spaces are controlled along racial lines. They are also a reminder that decades after the collapse of legal segregation, spaces like clothing stores, coffee shops, and universities are often still thought of as either “black spaces” or “white spaces.”

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

America has a very long history of restricting black movement, going back to the years of black codes and Jim Crow laws. And while the Living While Black incidents of this year certainly built off of that history, they’re also a thoroughly modern development, one that Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson describes as “a powerful new form of symbolic racism that targets black people for behaving in ordinary ways while being black at the same time.”

Anderson explained this in further detail in an August article for Vox, noting that much of the issue lies in white Americans’ belief that African Americans cannot be separated from what he calls the “iconic ghetto” — a place where blacks live inferior lives separate from whites.

Anderson writes:

In practical terms, whites know little about the iconic ghetto and the people who inhabit it. But despite that lack of specified knowledge, for many whites, the anonymous black person in public is always implicitly associated with the urban ghetto.

The link to the ghetto is so strong that it becomes the “master status” of the typical black person, to use a term coined by sociologist E.C. Hughes. It’s the feature that most defines black people in the white imagination.

Anonymous black people — wherever they may actually live, and whatever their profession — therefore move about civil society with a deficit of credibility in comparison with their white counterparts, who are given a “pass” as decent and law-abiding citizens.

In this system, the average black person wages a constant campaign for respect, which is lost before it begins. The judges are most often the contestants who compete with black people for place and position in our increasingly pluralistic and thus rivalrous society.

But the problems highlighted by Living While Black incidents are not solely about the ways public space is controlled. These incidents have also called attention to the ways that police are often wielded as a weapon against people of color to force compliance and exert control. And given very clear racial disparities in police use of force, this weaponization has been particularly concerning.

In the aftermath of several prominent Living While Black incidents this year, black people said that involving police immediately made them afraid. But the men and women involved also spoke of a broader feeling of dehumanization after having their presence in a place questioned.

Paul Butler, a professor at Georgetown Law and the author of Chokehold: Policing Black Men, told me that this feeling of dehumanization is particularly harmful.

“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,” Butler 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.”

Living While Black is part of a larger story involving race in 2018

There were countless stories of Living While Black in 2018, but the headlines that grabbed media attention are only one part of the story. According to an October HuffPost/YouGov poll, 54 percent of African Americans said that they have felt “others have been suspicious of them based on the color of their skin.”

Just 6 percent of white people said the same.

This suggests that the stories of the year are part of a much larger problem when it comes to racism in America. And solving this issue is, of course, complicated. In the short term, consequences for those making unnecessary 911 calls have been limited, and have often been imposed by the public.

While individuals making 911 calls have been subjected to online ridicule and nicknames like #BBQBecky and #PoolPatrolPaula, or occasionally fired from their jobs for attracting negative attention, only a few have actually faced legal consequences.

These stories also highlight how racism has affected all people of color in 2018 — a year in which Latinos were openly threatened with calls to ICE, Arabic speakers were subjected to racist rants for daring to use their language in public, and people carried out hate crimes targeting nonwhite houses of worship. The anger over racial profiling in Living While Black stories is inseparable from the story of Botham Jean being killed in his own home, and is connected to the outrage over a black boy being forced to cut his hair before a wrestling match.

While the circumstances of each incident may differ, they all highlight the ways in which people of color are singled out and treated as deviant, often at the cost of their dignity, or their very lives. For black Americans, the incidents that unfolded this year were a reminder that while progress has been made, black bodies in America are still too often viewed as potentially criminal and deserving suspicion.

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