Racial Profiling: This is us, but it doesn’t have to be

Racial Profiling: This is us, but it doesn’t have to be

In 2008, a new social networking service hit the shelves of app stores: NextDoor.

For the longest time, I avoided the service.

At that time, I had Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat.

I did not need yet another service on which to waste time.

Last year, after moving to a new neighborhood, and deleting most of my social media accounts, I gave in. I downloaded the NextDoor app.

I almost immediately regretted the decision.

 

After being approved to join my neighborhood, I read post after post referencing “suspicious black people” walking in the neighborhood.

Initially, I channeled my social-justice-warrior energy and took every (white) person to task.

 

“What is the person doing? Were they just being black?” I’d ask.

 

“Activities are suspicious. People are not.”

I’d declare definitively in the comment thread.

 

Eventually, I deleted my account.

However, the fractured racialized logic that tells us some people are suspicious – some people don’t belong – continues to follow me.

Recently, at Columbia, we’ve had a couple incidents of racial profiling on campus.

[1] Each time this has involved a person of color being told they do not belong on our campus in some shape, form, or fashion.

[2] After the most recent occurrence, I drafted the following email to the Columbia community, inviting us to think more deeply about our understanding of community and belonging.

 

As you read it, I hope you will reflect on your own context, your own neighborhood, your own seminary, your own place of employment and how you might challenge the notion that some people belong and others do not.

 

About a month ago, an African American gentleman was on campus to interview with the Refectory staff. When this young man asked a member of our community for directions to the Refectory, the person allegedly responded, “I can’t tell you that. You don’t belong here. You need to leave this campus now.” The young man declined the job offer to work in the Refectory because his first interaction with us was being told he didn’t belong here.

 

On Tuesday, a brown man was working near the polling center in the Richards Center. He was an Agnes Scott Public Safety Officer in uniform who was patrolling campus to ensure campus safety. A member of our community called Agnes Scott Public Safety to report him being on campus – even though he was in uniform that clearly identified him as an Agnes Scott Public Safety Officer. Both of these occurrences are racial profiling. They are incidents wherein we have made assumptions about who belongs here and who does not based solely on their physical appearance.

 

I would love to write to you, “This is not us.” However, the difficult reality is, this is us. But it doesn’t have to be. We can, indeed, we must be and do better. Our commitment to campus safety cannot eclipse our commitment to being a community that is equitable, diverse, inclusive, and one that values justice. This email is not intended to shame anyone. It is, however, intended to call us to better. 

 

First, I want to remind you, people are not suspicious, activities are. If you encounter a person you do not know on campus – regardless of their race, ethnicity, attire, gender presentation, etc. – your first impulse should always be to acknowledge them as a human. Their presence is not suspicious. If you see a person you do not know, here are some tips for how to engage:

 

 1 Approach the person, introduce yourself, and ask their name. “Hi, I’m Brandon. I’m the Dean of Students here. What is your name?” This is both hospitable and enhances campus safety by letting the person know they have been seen – and being seen (not viewed) is a good thing. 

 

2. Offer assistance. “Can I help you find something or someone?” This creates a hospitable campus environment for guests and visitors, while also creating a safe environment for all. It communicates that we are both aware of our surroundings and committed to being helpful.

 

3. If the person clearly identifies themselves and tells you where they are headed, walk them there and connect them with the person or office they are seeking. “Nice to meet you, Felicia. I know where that office is. Let me take you there.” Again, this enhances campus safety while also conveying hospitality. It helps the person get to their destination and helps you ensure they are telling the truth about the nature of their business on campus.

 

4. If, and only if, you’ve engaged in the first three tips above, and the person responds in a way that raises caution (i.e., they avoid your questions, they deny your help and run away, etc.), contact Agnes Scott Public Safety.

 

Now, If someone is on campus and you observe them engaged in suspicious activity, don’t ask questions. Skip the tips listed above and call Agnes Scott Public Safety immediately. Suspicious activities might include: walking between multiple car while looking into car windows, jiggling car door handles, testing office door handles to see if they are unlocked, rummaging behind a desk or in an office that is not theirs, hiding when they’ve been seen, tampering with building access locks, repeatedly trying wrong building access codes, etc.[3]  Again, if you observe a person engaged in suspicious activity, call Agnes Scott Public Safety immediately.

 

If you have any questions or concerns, please let me know. I am always open to conversation and mutual learning. I am grateful for this community and the ways we continue to struggle together to become a place where all can flourish and live into the fullness of God’s love and freedom.

 

With courage and determination,

Brandon


[1] The racial profiling incidents have coincided with campus safety concerns, which led to a heightened sense of worry and concern among certain members of our community. My assumption is, folks who called campus security or confronted (black) folks directly were well-intentioned. However, well-intentioned contact with security officials rarely, if ever, results in a positive outcome for black and brown people.

[2] As I wrote this, I thought, this is the worst blog to post for prospective students! If you are a prospective student, prospective donor, or prospective anything else, I hope you’ll continue reading this blog and see that we are a community that is honest about where we are; we are striving to be and do better. Racial profiling occurs in every community, every college, every seminary across the country. That doesn’t make it right. It makes it a reality. A reality that we at CTS are working to transform. And the first step toward transformation is truth-telling. And the truth is – this is us, but it doesn’t have to be. No, It will not continue to be!

[3] After this email was sent, a student wrote me to request that I explicitly outline non-suspicious actions. I hadn’t thought about the need for this until the student’s email. Non-suspicious actions are walking (while black), sitting on a bench (while black), reading a book (while black), or doing virtually anything (while black).


The Rev. Maxwell serves as Vice President for Student Affairs & Community Life, Dean of Students, and Deputy Title IX Coordinator for Columbia Theological Seminary. He holds an MDiv from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, as well as both a BBA in Management and a BA in Religion from Belmont University. In 2012-2013 he was a Lutherischer WeltBund Fellow at Georg-August-Universität in Göttingen, Germany where he studied intercultural theology and education.

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One thought on “Racial Profiling: This is us, but it doesn’t have to be”

  1. Liz Peterson says:

    Very happy to see this post. And, I think it’s the perfect thing to show prospective students. Recently our congregation hosted a series of anti racism and internalized bias workshops for the neighborhood where we are located, in response to a situation similar to the one you describe : a black man riding a bike was targeted as a danger, just for riding his bike. Thank you for the honestly and reminders you’ve given us all here.

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