In 1955, white men kidnapped, beat and murdered 14-year-old Emmett Till for allegedly offending a white woman in a grocery store in Money, Missouri. More than 60 years have passed since then, and while the once-common practice of lynching is considered a thing of the past and a historically primarily southern phenomenon, recent incidents have revealed other ways white people—often specifically white women—are still using the law to maintain white dominance in the northern states.
On May 8, a white graduate student at Yale called police because Lolade Siyonbola, a Nigerian graduate student, had fallen asleep in the dorm common room while writing a paper there.
On April 30, a white mother called the police to report her suspicion of two Native American teenagers who were touring Colorado State University. That same day, a white homeowner called the police to report three African-American renters who were checking out of their Airbnb rental in California. A week before that, a golf club in York, Pennsylvania, called police to report (falsely) that five African-American club members were playing too slowly. Finally, a white Philadelphia Starbucks manager made national headlines when he called police to complain about the presence of two black men who said they were waiting in the store for a friend.
While police have escalated the indignity in some of these incidents—arresting the men at Starbucks, patting down the Native American students, detaining the graduates at the Airbnb—these are not primarily stories of police misconduct. Instead, they are stories about the ways white people are using the police to create and enforce their own sense of who belongs where. Black woman in grad student common room? Call the police. Native American students without a parent on a college tour? Call the police. Black women in a white residential neighborhood, or playing golf? Or at a Starbucks? In every case, call the police.
Callers may believe they are reacting to common perceptions of their targets. Primarily women, the callers may justify their calls as a matter of protection. But just as there may be a perception that black and native people are different and/or dangerous, how are the callers perceived? What is really being threatened other than traditionally white, middle-class spaces?
This situation is largely the product of our blatantly discriminatory past. People of color are less common at Starbucks, Yale and golf courses because they were long deliberately shut out from employment, property and education. The idea that black and brown folks pose a threat to white people—particularly, white women—is a product of the campaign to keep discrimination legal. The idea that business owners could refuse service, and call police to remove anyone they saw fit, emerged at the end of the 19th century to aid enforcement of Jim Crow. While the northern states were never as blatant about drawing legal color lines, they remained quite skilled at subtly enforcing them.
What is the way out of this situation? Police must respond to all complaints, but they should also be aware when a complaint may be founded in racial difference and give consideration to the targets as they do to the complainants.
Institutions themselves can admonish those who make unwarranted complaints, as Yale did with the complaining graduate student and Starbucks did with its employee when it turned out both had a history of calling the police to report innocent people of color.
Most importantly, white women must resist becoming agents of the private segregation of space. Carolyn Bryant, the white store owner whose complaints to her husband led him to murder Emmett Till, later admitted her account of his advances had been false, and that she grieved with the suffering of Till’s mother. While the epidemic of lynching is over, there remains potential for tragedy when police target people of color. Even without tragic results, we should all be aware of the ways our actions can help us learn from—or perpetuate—past mistakes.