Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk | Consequences key to curtailing everyday racism

Sundiata Cha-Jua/Real Talk | Consequences key to curtailing everyday racism

Perhaps, I’ve put too much emphasis on institutional and cultural racism. Or more accurately, I have not stressed individual racism enough.

Sometimes, microaggressions or everyday racism are merely discomforting. Sometimes, they are psychologically damaging. They certainly can wear you down, cause anxiety and depression, as well as hypertension and other somatic illnesses. And at other times, they are physically injurious and even deadly.

How should we respond to acts of individual racism that don't rise to the level of a hate crime?

I experienced a racial incident last Tuesday evening while walking my dog.

As we neared a strange white woman, perhaps new to the neighborhood, she clutched her purse. This is not unusual. It happens routinely. However, what got my attention was her physical transformation. As the woman came within several yards of me, a look of determination spread across her face. She clenched her teeth, leaned forward and wrapped both arms around her purse. She gripped it like a running back securing a football before impact.

As she passed, I smiled and shook my head, thinking "really?"

Normally, I wouldn't give instances of everyday racism much thought. However, this racist encounter stayed with me for two reasons. First, I'm struck by the extremity of her physical transformation. Second, this incident, like several recent high-profile episodes, is an example of individual racism.

It's one of the ever escalating "... while black" incidents. It's similar to what happened to Faith Chumo, an undergraduate student at Yale University. Having forgotten her swipe card, a nicely dressed Chumo and her friend asked a white student to let them in, without speaking, the woman turned and ran away.

Also at Yale, a white graduate student, Sarah Braasch, twice called campus police on black students, once in February and again in May. In February she reported Reneson Jean-Louis and Lolade Siyonbola in May. Braasch confronted Jean-Louis while he was looking for the dorm's common room, for a study session with Siyonbola, who lived in the dorm. He attempted to explain this, but Braasch insisted he "didn't belong" and that his presence made her "uncomfortable." So she called campus police alleging Jean-Louis was a "suspicious character." A couple of weeks ago, she again called campus police. This time to have Siyonbola, who was napping in the dorm's common area, removed. Like with Jean-Louis, Braasch argued she did so because Siyonbola "didn't belong."

In Memphis, Tenn., Michael Hayes, a real estate investor, was accosted by Tiffany Albert, a white neighbor, while inspecting a property he had under contract. Albert assailed Hayes with racial slurs and claimed he had no right to be in that neighborhood. Despite Hayes presenting documentation, Albert summoned the police.

Last Wednesday in New York City, Aaron Schlossberg, an attorney, verbally assaulted Latino workers at a restaurant for speaking Spanish. In a profanity-infused nativist rant, a screaming Schlossberg threatened to call Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE). In a full-blown racist diatribe, he proclaimed, "You shouldn't be speaking Spanish, I feel disrespected, go back to your country ... I pay for their welfare, I pay for their ability to be here. The least they can do is speak English."

In the Jean-Louis, Siyonbola and Hayes incidents, the police acted appropriately. This was not the case for Anthony Wall, however. On May 5, a verbal confrontation ensued in which Wall and Waffle House employees acted inappropriately. To Wall's repeated requests for a manager, the workers responded with racial and homophobic slurs, and by calling the police. Despite having his hands above his head, police Officer Frank Moss choked, shoved Wall against a window and slammed him to the ground. Predictably, Wall was charged with resisting arrest and disorderly conduct.

We've seen this movie before.

Moss is under investigation by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation. He will likely be found to have acted within the law. In 2015, the officer was not charged in 97 percent of cases of police brutality. Wall will probably reach a monetary settlement with the city. The 10 U.S. municipalities with the largest police departments paid nearly $250 million dollars in police misconduct settlements and judgments in 2014. Police misconduct is occasionally subject to departmental discipline and criminal prosecution but far more frequently to civil settlement or judgment.

What about the perpetrators of everyday racism? Schlossberg should have been arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. But what about Braasch, Albert and the numerous other white individuals who have either placed unnecessary calls to police or publicly harassed blacks and other darker persons?

"The Daily Show" host Treavor Noah correctly contends that whites make unnecessary calls to the police because they don't face consequences for their racist behavior. He suggests a $5 fee be charged for all 911 calls. If the person reports a genuine crime, then the money is reimbursed. If not, then the fee is applied to administrative costs and the offender is fined $1,000.

I think Noah is on to something. Individual acts of racism should carry consequences. There should be negative incentives, punishment. My inclination is to add mandatory participation in a diversity seminar and the option of either 10 days in jail or doing a community service project to Noah's proposal.

Sundiata Cha-Jua is a professor of African-American studies and history at the University of Illinois and is a member of the North End Breakfast Club. His email is schajua@gmail.com.

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