The email campus officials of the University of Akron sent out to its Black male students because of rising crime in the area has sparked quite the controversy. Critics have been vocal in their outrage over the email claiming it was racially biased.
On NPR’s segment, “In Safety Email, Helpful Tips Or Racial Bias?”, Dr. Boyce Watkins and Lee Gill discuss the incident that has the Internet buzzing. Boykins’ position is that the email inadvertently gives “license to police to racially profile Black males on and near campus.” The Syracuse University finance professor also believes Black males shouldn’t have been isolated and reduced to treatment of second class citizens. Gill, the Chief Diversity Officer and Associate Vice President for Inclusion and Equity at the University of Akron, argues the idea of the email sprung from a forum with Black male students, and was sent by the Office of Multicultural Development, which he claims has a paternalistic relationship with its students.
Admittedly, when the story first broke I didn’t share the outrage of others. After reading the email and various blog posts on the subject, I concluded the email was highly problematic. But “racist” as others were calling it — seemed like a stretch.
Let’s be clear: racial profiling is a very real issue. I’ve been in vehicles on more than one occasion with Black males in my southern hometown where we were stopped by police solely because my friends were young, Black and driving luxury cars. In those circumstances I, alone, questioned officers on why we were being stopped. “What is the probable cause for this stop, officer?” I queried. I, alone, would ask for badge numbers and the name of the officers’ superior so that I could file a formal complaint. After they ripped the car apart looking for drugs and weapons while my male friends sat on the cement in handcuffs, and found nothing, they sent us on our way without so much as an apology. And while I was speaking up it was my fearful (understandably) Black male friends who would beg me to be quiet because they knew all too well what could happen to a Black man who “didn’t know his place.” As progressive as New York may claim to be, the relationship here between police and minorities is no better than the south. I have stood on NY corners to vigilantly monitor police while they stopped and frisked teenage Black boys hoping to at least bear witness in case these males were harassed. And with all of those experiences rushing to the forefront of my mind, I wasn’t quite sure this email intended what people were accusing it of.
Ohio native and Pastor of of the Shiloh Baptist Church in Norwalk, CT, Napoleon Harris, said the email was eerily similar of slave codes when Blacks were forced to show their papers. Similar to how Donald Trump basically wanted President Obama to “show his papers” to prove he was American.
“It’s reminiscent of the slave codes in that a college ID is now the same get out of jail card that plantation permits were,” said Harris. “The main victims are the Black males who live near AU who are law abiding citizens who to are likely victims of crime who don’t have access to the resources to attend the university.”
Fair point and one that others have raised as well. Some suggest the tone of the email reaks of Black male college students having to prove to the police they are one of the “good” Blacks and not one of “those criminal” Blacks. I totally get that sentiment. Is the email implying that it’s ok to racially profile Black males in the neighborhood who are not college students?
“It denigrates the idea of innocence until proved guilty to guilty if Black around campus unless able to show you’re a student,” added Harris.
Regardless of which side of the debate you’re on, it’s clear that the email should have been sent to the entire student body. Perhaps even the language of the email could have been different adding, “It’s unfortunate Black males are racially profiled and we have to send this email, but if you are stopped please remember to do…”
Rayshawn Ray, assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland College Park, would like to know if the university would have sent the email to its white male students. If the answer is no, then this situation is highly problematic, he says. “The existence of Black male students continues to be questioned, stereotyped, and racially marked as something different from the white ideal,” said Ray. “These dynamics lead to a hyper-level of visibility and accountability for Black male students where they suffer associations with criminality and gang involvement instead of being able to reap the same benefits of their privileged status like white male students.”
Intent here is everything. As I’ve mentioned previously, I can’t deny the email was problematic. Associating all Black males as criminals subject to be stopped only because of the color of their skin is preposterous. Therefore, singling Black males out was a poor judgment call. But do we not live in a world where unarmed Black males– Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell, Oscar Grant, Danroy Henry– are murdered by the boys in blue because of racism and the fear of Black males? Aren’t proactive measures on telling Black males how to react when stopped by police warranted? We urge Black parents to teach their sons as boys how to respond to police. Just maybe this email, even if the attempt was an epic fail, was acting as that parental force away from home with the intent to actually keep its Black male students safe and alive. After all, the email did end with: “However, in the event that you believe you have been treated unfairly or in an inappropriate manner, please call (330) 330-972-2911 tel:330-972-2911 to make a formal complaint or feel free to contact my office at (330) 972-8289.”
In questioning the presumed bias of this email, I hope we are also actively questioning the racist institutions that exist that insist on criminalizing, profiling, brutalizing and killing innocent Black males. That is the real injustice.