A YOUNG woman, on her lunch break, is sitting in a common area of Smith College, a small college in Western Massachusetts. She is by herself, unaware of what will befall her in the next few minutes. An employee of the college walks by, notices her and then departs. A few minutes later, a police officer arrives and asks the young woman what she is doing there. The employee of the college, it turns out, had called the police and said that there was a young woman who looked “out of place”. The young woman is a student, as it happens, and has her identification papers to prove it. The officer apologises, leaves and then does not file a report. The young woman takes to Facebook to vent about the humiliation of the interaction. “I am blown away at the fact that I cannot even sit down and eat lunch peacefully. I did nothing wrong. I wasn’t making any noise or bothering anyone. All I did was be black.”
What Oumou Kanoute, a young black woman, experienced has become commonplace these days—a sentiment amongst a section of the population in the United States that has begun to assert itself in public spaces, making claims against minorities. The phrase that Oumou Kanoute used, All I did was be black, is used so widely that it is on a T-shirt. What happened to Oumou Kanoute mirrors what happened to Lolade Siyonbola, a black woman graduate student at Yale University. She was taking a nap in a common area in May this year when campus police came to ask her to verify her identity. A fellow student had called the police on her.
In both cases, the colleges apologised for the incidents and set in motion various sensitivity training for staff. This is the typical bureaucratic mechanism to control what would otherwise be a public relations fiasco. Such types of training occur periodically, but they rarely have much of an impact when they are, in fact, fighting against a culture of cruelty that has been largely emboldened by the presidency of Donald Trump.
It is not that this culture of cruelty was absent before Trump took office, but now a broad section of American society feels it can be outrageously bold in the sense that it, namely white America, sets the terms for life in the U.S. When Trump talked of “taking America back”, the question raised was “take it back from whom”? The sotto voce answer is to take it back from the minorities. This is a fantasy. Minorities have never set the terms in the U.S. But it is a great deal easier to blame a young black student for the inequality rate in the country than it is to blame the banks or the very rich.
Not a day goes by without the release of a new video on social media of casual forms of racism. A young child is selling lemonade on the sidewalk and someone calls the police on her because she is black. A young man who is mowing the lawn for someone mistakenly mows part of the lawn of a neighbour, who calls the police on him because he is black. People are sitting in a Starbucks in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, or barbecuing in the park in Oakland, California, and the police arrive to harass them because they are black. White men and women casually walking up to black parents at playgrounds and at community swimming pools to ask them if they have permission to be there, even when it is clear that they are residents with identification cards that allow them into these gated areas.
Two years ago, Sureshbhai Patel, an aged Indian, was beaten savagely by a police officer after a person said a black man was looking into a garage. The journalist Joy-Ann Reid wrote of these “small acts” in a way that resonates with many who feel impinged upon by everyday racism: “If you’re black or brown in America and you’re lucky, it’s these small acts that stay with you, like a residual cough after a cold.”