August 11, 2018 100 Views
It’s getting hard to keep up with the latest hashtags devoted to 911 calls on black people.
There’s #SittingInStarbucksWhileBlack, #BarbecuingWhileBlack, #GolfingWhileBlack, #EatingSubwayWhileBlack, and even #WearingSocksWhileBlack. Those are just some of the infractions committed by black people that caused white callers to dial 911.
As stories of these encounters ricochet across the media, it looks at times as if some mysterious new contagion — a quickly mutating form of racial profiling — is taking hold of the collective psyche of White America.
But this behavior isn’t a symptom of anything new. It’s a modern twist on something old, say some historians and those who’ve lived through it. This aggressive patrolling of public space bears an eerie resemblance to another race-induced contagion in America decades ago.
When the courts outlawed overt segregation in the 1950s and ’60s, many whites reacted by trying to “privatize” public spaces. They wanted to carve out melanin-free zones in parks, pools and sidewalks to avoid what some folks called “interracial intimacy.”
That battle led to “white flight,” a mass migration to the suburbs of whites who no longer wanted to share their public schools and sidewalks with people of color. What’s happening now is White Flight 2.0. Whites are standing their ground. Consciously or unconsciously, they are reasserting their belief that public spaces belong to them alone, says Kevin M. Kruse, a history professor at Princeton University.
“What we see now is the same underlying dynamic — the feeling that these public spaces cannot be shared,” says Kruse, author of “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.” “But rather than white flight, it’s fight.
“In the generation before, whites angry that these spaces are being shared or taken over by African-Americans packed up and left. Now they’re digging in and fighting.”
The 911 call may be the weapon of choice right now — perhaps made more obvious by the use of smartphones and social media — but some whites have used plenty of other tools to keep people of color off-balance in public spaces. “Black codes” passed after the Civil War mandated that blacks seek permission before traveling. “Sundown towns” displayed placards at the edge of town warning people of color to get off the streets after sunset. During the Jim Crow era, a black person had to step off the curb when a white person approached.
Making nonwhite people hop in public to the whims and fears of white people is an American tradition, says Robin DiAngelo, author of “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
That behavior is meant to send a message — both then, as well as now with the 911 calls, she says.
“That attitude is, ‘This public space is ours, not yours. And you need to be in your rightful place,'” says DiAngelo, who is white. “It is the classic, ‘Step down off of that curb, I am coming down the sidewalk and you will submit to my presence. I own this country. I own this place. Don’t get uppity with me.'”
Diagnosing this outbreak is one thing, but stopping it is another. There are no Centers for Disease Control guidelines for changing the mind of someone who sees a black girl selling water on the street as a public safety threat.
But talking to those who have been victimized by these 911 calls — as well as someone who was raised in a community where this behavior was normal — may help.
‘You could hear her voice quivering’
A first step begins with the victims of the 911 calls. We usually see them play their part on camera — the befuddled person of color trying to figure out why they’re facing a police officer.
These moments often become sources of grim humor. People joke about them online. Some have created hashtags like #ExistingWhileBlack and #LivingWhileBlack to try to capture them all.
It’s easy to forget how emotionally damaging such experiences can be. Felicia Dobson, however, offers a reminder.