June 5, 2018

Quick Takes (v25): A New Scarlet Letter?

Another day, and more reports of Americans being harassed by patriotic fellow citizens, or by law enforcement officers, for being black or for looking or sounding less than American.

I could try and recap some of these incidents for you, but I'm not going to do that. I'm going to let Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tell you.
It’s hardly news that people of color are continually harassed, but what’s been making the news lately is the frequency with which upwardly mobile, middle-class people of color are being targeted. From the two black men waiting for a friend at a Philadelphia Starbucks, to a black Yale graduate student napping in her dorm’s common room, to three black women facing down seven cop cars and a helicopter as they checked out out of an Airbnb house they were renting, the victims’ faces on the news are not just the hoodied street thugs that white America expects and can then dismiss. 
Here's another recent example, again involving a law enforcement officer, except this time the people of color are two women of Hispanic heritage buying groceries. One was born in Texas, the other is from California.

Two American citizens were at a convenience store in Havre, a town in northern Montana. They were speaking Spanish - the horror! - and were overheard by a Border Patrol agent. Speaking Spanish was enough of a scary thing that he decided he needed to determine whether they were legally in the United States because You can check out the local news story, and a video of the officer explaining he reasoning, here.

You hear the agent deny racial profiling; it's just that in Montana you don't get a lot of people wandering around speaking Spanish, that's all. And you can say he was just doing his job, I suppose.

But would he have asked my and my husband for our ID if we were in the convenience store buying eggs and milk at midnight, chatting in English? Of course not. And probably not if we were speaking any other of the predominantly white European languages. At least, he didn't say he would; it would have made for an interesting clarification, I think.

Here's another example, this time from right here in Syracuse. Border Patrol agents randomly questioned people on an Amtrak train if they were citizens. I say randomly because, according to a person of color who was questioned, the white people were randomly excluded from questioning. And I have no reason to doubt that account, because it's similar to so many others.

Why would the Border Patrol be questioning people on a train in Syracuse?  Well, we snuck into the 100-miles-of-a-border range, by a mere three miles. Actually, that's the 'how' not the why, right? How they're able to do this is because we're 97 miles away from the Canadian Border. Why they were doing it, well, that's another question, I think.

Is speaking (or maybe just looking) Spanish really enough of a reason to ask someone for their papers? Is being black enough of a reason to call the police on someone? Apparently, in our presidentially-enhanced, hyper-racial, hyper-patriotic, hyper-MAGA society, the answer is yes.

We once had the fictional scarlet letter, signifying an adulterous relationship. Now, it seems, we have a have a letter of a different color - any color (other than white, of course) for American people of color to wear.