The now-infamous arrest of two black men waiting for a friend in a Philadelphia Starbucks made me think about a recent chilly night in Manhattan when I was happily walking home from a movie through a desolate stretch of SoHo.
While rounding a corner, I saw two sets of suspicious eyes tracking my movements. By the time I had crossed the street and reached the sidewalk, I was aware that two New York City police officers were now walking behind me.
Were they looking for someone, and did I match his description? Were they looking for me because someone had called to say I looked suspicious or threatening?
My heart thumped as I realized that in my rush to get to the warmth of my home, I had just jaywalked. That’s an infraction committed countless times every day, and it’s certainly not a priority for the police, I told myself. (I had not yet seen the video of two white police officers Tasering and beating a black man whom they accused of jaywalking in Asheville, N.C.) But neither is loitering, the crime so many white Americans have argued justified the arrest of the men in Starbucks.
What to do with my hands? Would it be more dangerous to leave them in my pocket, letting the officers wonder if I had a gun? Or to take them out and risk appearing to pull out a weapon? I could imagine the officer’s statement after shooting or assaulting me: “I feared for my life”. I opted to very slowly pull out my hands and let them swing by my sides. Gloveless, they hurt from the cold.When I finally turned the next corner, the cops slowed and glanced my way but kept walking. I sighed in relief.
My fear was not irrational. Although a federal court ruled the New York Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practice unconstitutional in 2013, over 80 percent of people stopped by the police are black or Latino, while members of these groups make up less than 60 percent of the city’s population. The department has received more than 1,500 complaints of racial profiling since 2015
My fear was also related to a problem much bigger than what happened at Starbucks — a problem the anti-racial bias training the company has scheduled for its employees can’t even begin to address. The police in this country have long been empowered to respond to white anxiety about the very presence of black people. The 1863 “Ordinance to establish patrols for the police of slaves in the Parish of St. Landry” is an early example. “Every free white male person, having attained the age of 16 years and not above the age of 60 years, who shall reside in the State of Louisiana and Parish of St. Landry, shall be bound to do patrol duty within the limits of the patrol district in which he resides”, it read. This piece of legislation allowed white men to directly police black people.
When emancipation finally came, so did the Black Codes and Jim Crow. As Carol Anderson wrote in “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide”, the Black Codes created a world in which, for African-Americans, “self-sufficiency itself was illegal, as blacks couldn’t hold any employment besides laborer or domestic”, and they were “banned from hunting and fishing and thus denied the means even to stave off hunger”. At the same time, “If African-Americans refused or could show no proof of gainful employment, they would be charged with vagrancy and put on the auction block, with their labor sold to the highest bidder”. If the police didn’t see the “crime” — working, not working, fishing, hunting — firsthand, all it took to derail a black person’s day (and in some cases, life) was a white person making a report, and this happened often.
My great-great-grandfather Thomas was policed for helping a friend in the early 20th century. As family lore goes, when he was a sharecropper in Georgia, black farmers needed a pass to leave their plot of land. Thomas lent his pass to a friend to go visit a woman, but when a white person demanded to see it and the name didn’t match, all hell broke loose. The patrol came to beat Thomas, but he shot back at them. While the patrol retreated to get more ammunition, Thomas and kin left the land they had worked for generations and fled nort
You don’t have to look to history books to hear this kind of story. Think of the things that have attracted police attention — leading to arrest, assault or even death — in recent memory: a black boy playing with a toy gun. A black Harvard professor entering his own home. Black teenagers selling bottled water on the National Mall. Black high school kids celebrating the end of the school year at a pool party.
This is life in a country where white citizens who see life through racism’s lens can often count on the police to share their outlook. This dynamic isn’t any less terrifying when you label it “racial bias”, a phrase used to describe Starbucks’s planned training
As a result, there are two classes of American citizens: Members of one can carry machine guns in front of the police in open-carry states without recrimination, drink alcohol in public without reproach and wait for friends in Starbucks without worry. Members of the other — people like me — worry about leaving our hands in our pockets after jaywalking on a cold night.
Steven W. Thrasher is a doctoral candidate in American studies at New York University, where he researches race, policing and the criminalization of H.I.V.