As thousands protested racially motivated police brutality in Baltimore this week, about 420 people gathered at Arizona State University to talk about the hyper-surveillance of black males.
"We have to talk about things that make us uncomfortable in order to grow and change," said Walter R. Allen, a professor of sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles who addressed the standing-room-only crowd. The university's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences invited Allen to speak as part of a 20-year-old annual lecture series on race relations named for former ASU professor A. Wade Smith.
Racial profiling, hyper surveillance, and intense policing of black people is an issue, not just in the ghetto of Baltimore, but also on college campuses, he said. As one example, he pointed to ASU's violent arrest of assistant professor Ersula Ore last year for jaywalking.
According to Allen's research, conducted on college campuses across the country, black men consistently are stereotyped as "anti-intellectual," "criminal," and "ghetto," and are often assumed to "only be there for the sports."
Such tensions often manifest as micro-aggressions, or, as Allen puts it, "little needle pricks, a comment here, a slight there, that, when it's all rolled together, can lead to racial battle fatigue." The psychological costs can sometimes build up so much that they alter people's physiological well-being, such as increasing blood pressure. It can also interfere with academic performance, Allen said.
"Stereotypes interfere with how black students adjust and whether they adjust," he said.
He related the story of a black student at the University of California, Berkely, called Andre who struck up a conversation with a white girl in his English class. Her first question was, "So, um, what sport do you play?"
"I've learned to kind of keep my cool because really I just want to, you know, let these people know how ignorant they are about the stereotypes," Andre told Allen. "[They assume] that if you're an African American male you have to be an athlete to be here."
Another black student, Kyle, reported that a casual game of ball at 11 p.m. outside the U.C. Berkeley, dorms attracted five police cars, a van, and two officers on bikes. Although students of other ethnicities frequently played games on the field late into the night, the men were threatened with arrest.
"I feel like the police [are] everywhere here," watching you, waiting," a black University of Michigan Law Student named Michael told Allen.
Black men on college campuses, Allen's research shows, are simultaneously "tracked as alien" and "potential threats" and treated as if they were invisible.
"The best characterization I can think of is when you step through the door at a store and the security officer is all up on you," he said. "Then, when you step up to the register to buy your stuff, the guy running the cash register is like, 'Oh. Were you next? I didn't see you."
After his speech Wednesday night, Allen took questions from the crowd.
One student noted that, following incidents at ASU that students perceived as racial, they had met with administrators. Their leaders disagreed that race was an issue.
"How do you deal with colorblindness?" the student asked.
"You have to listen to people who are excluded from power," Allen said. "When they say race matters, it matters."
Another student suggested that new laws might need to be passed in order to settle rising racial tensions about police brutality.
"In the university context, there are more than enough laws and rules on the books to prevent, challenge, and punish discrimination," Allen said. "It comes down to a mater of enforcement and a commitment to fairness."
Allen commended ASU for sponsoring the A. Wade Smith Memorial Lecture on Race Relations, which is in it's 20th year.
"Having these kinds of conversations on campus is an important first step to solve the problem," he said.
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