Shelia Stubbs made history in August when she won the Democratic primary for a state Assembly seat in Wisconsin’s 77th District. A 12-year veteran of the Dane County Board of Supervisors running unopposed in the general election, Stubbs will become the first African American to represent the district, which spans some of the poorest and wealthiest areas in Madison.
Days before her victory, though, while canvassing in her district, a police officer approached Stubbs in response to an unidentified man’s complaint that Stubbs, who was with her 71-year-old mother and 8-year-old daughter, might be in the neighborhood to buy drugs.
According to a police report obtained by Madison’s Capital Times and BuzzFeed, the man called police on August 7 to complain about a “suspicious vehicle.” The report cited a police dispatch in which the caller suggested that the vehicle, which was occupied by Stubbs’s mother and daughter, was “waiting for drugs at the local drug house.”
Shortly after, a police officer arrived at the vehicle and spoke with Linda Hoskins, Stubbs’s mother. Hoskins explained that her daughter was a politician canvassing in her district. When Stubbs returned to the car, she showed the officer her campaign materials and name tag.
“I felt humiliated. I felt outraged, I felt angry. I felt embarrassed,” Stubbs told CBS News. The caller has not been identified, although Stubbs notes that she was in a predominantly white neighborhood at the time.
The incident, which garnered national attention this week after Stubbs spoke with the Capital Times, is just the latest in a string of incidents in which the police have been called to deal with black people waiting in Starbucks, barbecuing, napping in a dorm, swimming in pools, selling water, mowing a lawn, and riding in a car with a relative.
In fact, Stubbs isn’t the first black politician to report being approached by police as they canvassed. Earlier this year Oregon state legislator Janelle Bynum was forced to defend her presence in a neighborhood after someone called 911. In September, a local Florida politician was surrounded by several police officers and a helicopter after accidentally tripping a security alarm as he campaigned.
.@Jerickaduncan speaks with Shelia Stubbs, a black Wisconsin state assemblywoman who had the police called on her as she campaigned door-to-door: "I felt humiliated. I felt outrage. I felt angry. I felt embarrassed" https://t.co/TYMDYL3AsH pic.twitter.com/MFO7wMhsyb— CBS News (@CBSNews) September 19, 2018
These stories and others have seen media coverage so frequently that they’ve formed a new news genre: “Living While Black,” a phrase encompassing the myriad ways black people are viewed with suspicion, profiled, and threatened with responses from police for minor infractions, or less.
Collectively, the incidents 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.
Racial profiling isn’t new, but Living While Black stories have called new attention to it
At its core, these stories are 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.”
Robin DiAngelo, a sociologist and the author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, says a recent deluge of videos and social media posts about these incidents have made it much more difficult for profiling allegations to be dismissed. “These incidents have always happened, but white people do not always believe it because it doesn’t happen to us,” DiAngelo told me earlier this year. “The only real difference we have now is that we are able to record it in a way that makes it undeniable.”
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 they face consequences when that justification isn’t accepted.
“White people need to put the black interlopers in their place, literally and figuratively,” Anderson explained in a Vox article last month. “Black people must have their behavior corrected, and they must be directed back to ‘their’ neighborhoods and designated social spaces.”
These incidents can strain trust between communities of color and police
As Living While Black incidents have attracted national attention, the conversation around them has repeatedly raised the question of why police are being asked to respond to situations where they aren’t really needed.
When white people call law enforcement on people of color 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.
These incidents can have real effects on the relationships between law enforcement and communities of color. Black and white people call law enforcement at different rates, with people of color calling the police far less than their white counterparts. This is driven by a crucial difference in 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.
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,” 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.”
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. And negative perceptions of African Americans can be fatal, with racial justice advocates pointing to the case of Botham Jean, a black man recently killed in his own apartment after an off-duty police officer claimed to mistake his apartment for her own.
Stubbs acknowledged this danger when recalling her own Living While Black incident. “When you specifically target people of color and call the police, sometimes there’s different outcomes,” she told the Capital Times.
“I belong where I choose to go,” Stubbs added. “You don’t have to like me. You don’t even have to respect me. But I have a right to be places.”