In Safety Email, Helpful Tips Or Racial Bias?

GUESTS:

Lee Gill, Associate Vice President for Inclusion and Equity and the Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Akron.

Boyce Watkins, founder of YourBlackWorld.com, and a professor of finance at Syracuse University.

After a series of robberies, University of Akron administrators emailed students on how to react if approached by police. The tips: identify yourself as a student, don't run and don't get angry. Some critics say the email displays racial bias because it was sent only to black male students.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host: We want to turn now to a conversation about how a college in Ohio is handling a racially charged situation on its campus. After a series of robberies on the campus of the University of Akron, the school sent an email to African American male students advising them to cooperate with the police investigation. The email advised the students to carry their college IDs at all times, to avoid using profanity with officers and not to run from police. The email said the suspects in the robberies were young, African American males who were probably not students at the university.

But as you might imagine, this email has sparked controversy. Some students and outside critics accused the university of, in essence, condoning racial profiling.

Joining us to talk about this are Lee Gill. He is the Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Akron. Also with us, Boyce Watkins. He is a professor of finance at Syracuse University. He's also founder of the website, YourBlackWorld.com, and a blogger and an activist. And they're both with us now.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us.

LEE GILL: Well, thank you so much for having us.

BOYCE WATKINS: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: And Vice President Gill, you're also the Associate Vice President for Inclusion and Equity.

GILL: That is correct.

MARTIN: Tell us, what was the idea behind this email?

GILL: Well, initially, if I can just go back one step, two years ago, we were having similar problems on campus and we held a major forum at the university with about 350 of our students, a very diverse group of students.

One of the strategies that came from that forum suggested by African American males was that, if we have these continued kind of issues, please inform us as to how we need to react. And from that forum came this idea of being able to supply or provide, I should say, a letter to our African American males that would employ them on how to act, how to react, so that situations with being stopped by the police would be minimal.

And as I said, that came from them. So this year, we've had some crime issues off campus, not on campus. But many of our students live in the neighborhoods and live off campus, so once again, we wanted to employ the same strategy that we had in the past, to inform them on what they need to do in order to maintain their safety, in order not to get into any kind of trouble.

The letter actually was sent from our Office of Multicultural Development. The Office of Multicultural Development has a very paternalistic relationship with our students.

MARTIN: You mean that you thought that this letter - that first of all, I should mention, if it matters, and Professor Watkins, we're going to come to you next - but that the Director of Multicultural Development who actually sent the email is an African American woman and you are - if you don't mind my mentioning this - you are an African American man.

GILL: That is correct.

MARTIN: So you saw this email as acting, in essence, in loco parentis.

GILL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: You're saying, if you are here, your parents aren't here, I'm acting in the way that I think your parents would.

GILL: Exactly. And since I've raised two sons and I was raised by an African American father who told me the exact same thing on a Friday or a Saturday when I would go out or how to - if I were ever stopped by the police - how to be calm, answer questions, provide my license, don't blow things out of proportion. I raised my two sons in that same way.

And with that in loco parentis attitude, we were attempting to support and provide a safe haven for our African American males.

MARTIN: Okay. Let's turn to Professor Watkins. Now, Professor Watkins, you've blogged about this. You know all this, but you still feel that this is irresponsible. Tell us more about why. And if you also don't mind mentioning this, you are also an African American male.

WATKINS: Yes, I am. I've been a black man for quite a while now, and I also happen to be the son of a police officer, so I've had a lot of these conversations with my dad, as well, and I respect him. And I also respect what some of the university officials were trying to do.

I think that paternalism can be a good thing, but paternalism can also be a bad thing because, sometimes, paternalism can be a form of racism, you know? Because when you look at this situation - and Reverend Sharpton and I - we went to Akron to defend Kelley Williams-Bolar, the mother that was going to be sent to prison or to jail for sending her children to the wrong school.

And we saw what was really happening at Akron. We saw the racial profiling. We saw some of the police abuse that's taking place there. And it's incredibly problematic, but it's reflective of what's happening all across the country.

And I think that, when you have these situations where you have these crimes committed and the suspects are black men, you have to be very careful in terms of how you deal with that.

You see, now, on one hand, this email obviously was not meant to be harmful or insulting to the black males, but at the same time, what you're doing is you are isolating the black men in a way that was similar to the quote/unquote "protection" that was given to the Japanese when they put them in interment camps during World War II.

Not as cruel, of course, but a similar mindset in the sense that you're saying to them that, we have a set of rules that apply to you. We could have easily sent this email to the entire student body because I don't see anything in that message that wouldn't apply to every white student on that campus, too. They have to also respect the police, but what we're...

MARTIN: Well, let's ask - go ahead. I just want you to finish that thought and then I want to ask Vice President Gill about that.

WATKINS: OK. Well, OK. Well, what you're effectively doing is you're saying to the black males, make sure you show your papers so that we can separate you from the black males from the urban area who are not in college, because we are going to - there's a good chance that they're going to be racially profiled and we don't want this to happen to you because you're part of the elite of this community.

MARTIN: Well, Vice President Gill, what about Professor Watkins' point, that this is an email which could have been sent to everyone? I mean, why wouldn't everyone need to know to be respectful to the police, to cooperate with a police investigation, you know, not to run, as it were? Why wouldn't everybody need to know that? Why single out the African American male?

GILL: Well, you know, hindsight is always 20-20, and after discussions and really some reflection in early morning hours once this had become a story, we made that determination that this letter, this email, could have very easily been sent to all of our students. And in the future, it will be sent to all of our students.

Now, having said that, actually, we have a group on our campus called the Student African American Brotherhood. And if you're aware of what's taking place on campuses with African American male groups, the Student African American Brotherhood is a national organization on numerous campuses around the country, has an 87 percent graduation rate. They are actually hosting, next week, their own program designed to have discussions as to how to react when police stop you. They're going to be sharing incidents and, at the same time, trying to come up with strategies that they want to hold themselves accountable for their actions and also provide strategies and initiatives as to how the police can better react.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.

We're talking about an email sent by the University of Akron to its African American male students advising them about how to act and react if they are approached by police.

Joining us is Lee Gill, the Associate Vice President for Inclusion and Equity and the Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Akron. Also with us is Professor Boyce Watkins. He's founder of YourBlackWorld.com and a financial professor at Syracuse University. He's critical of the email that was sent to the students.

Professor Watkins, there are those who would argue it's just common sense, because the African American male students are the ones who have complained about being targeted by the police in the particular set of robberies and incidents that were the subject of the police investigation. The suspects were African American males.

WATKINS: Yes.

MARTIN: The argument is being made. Why isn't it just common sense to talk about the people who are most likely to encounter police or have interactions with the police how to make that experience less painful?

WATKINS: I think it would have made sense to send the email to all of the students on campus, because what happens is we begin to identify African American males as being more likely to be criminal or to engage in deviant behavior. But I guarantee you that, if the police were to raid a lot of these fraternity houses on Friday nights, they would find a whole long list of criminal activity taking place in these fraternity houses.

The difference is that, when you are a brother in the 'hood sitting down in the housing projects, the police are - you are effectively in a police state where the police - and I've seen this up close, just being friends with so many police officers. There is an understanding that they are allowed to get away with things when dealing with poor blacks that they can't get away with when dealing with the elite or white folks, or people on college campuses.

And you saw that with Kelley Williams-Bolar in Akron, Ohio, where they were going to send her to jail for sending her kids to the wrong school. So I think the university, A, should have sent the email to all of the students. And B, I think there should be a conversation about how the university can deal with this crime wave without somehow making the black men on the campus feel that they need to be protected from the police. That is unfair, un-American, unconstitutional and everything else.

GILL: Well, I would agree with all that. I don't think that black males felt as though they need to be protected. I think what we were doing - there are instances when young black males realize they have not done anything wrong and they're just merely moving through the streets in a community and they're stopped.

There is a psychological, sometimes, tendency to overreact. Why are you stopping me? What is the problem? And we know that happens. We wanted our black males not to overreact, to end up in a situation to where they've got this great opportunity to be at a great institution in Ohio getting a degree. Why lose that opportunity because you caught yourself up into something that you hadn't done anything wrong?

WATKINS: But also...

MARTIN: One of the points that Professor Watkins made, Vice President Gill, in his blog post is that - is the conversation with the police appropriate and their conduct?

GILL: Absolutely.

MARTIN: And why is that conversation going on?

GILL: We've had those conversations. That's the point.

WATKINS: And also, make sure you look at the data. If the black male students are being stopped by police more than the white students, that's racial profiling. That's a problem.

GILL: Absolutely.

WATKINS: This isolation of black males and applying the certain rules to them that are a set of rules that wouldn't be applied to everyone else is a little bit problematic, so...

MARTIN: Well, Professor Watkins, but from the standpoint of the incidents that were under investigation, there were, in fact, a series of robberies and the suspects in those cases were, in fact, African American young males. So if that is the case, are they supposed to not investigate them because it would be hurtful to some people? You see my point? I mean, so how would they address the fact that those young men are, in fact...

WATKINS: Well, I agree with you, Michel. I mean, there are ways to investigate crime without profiling. You shouldn't be harassed by police unless you are a suspect and the color of your skin should not automatically make you a suspect. And what you find in many situations - this is happening in New York City - where they were effectively rounding up black men in certain areas who looked like they were doing something wrong and putting them in situations where their lives and their freedom were jeopardized.

So interacting with the police is a great way to end up in jail. We all know that and we know that black men are more likely to end up interacting with police because, in many cases, police end up just seeing that you're a black man and asking you more questions than they would ask anybody else. And this happened to me when I was in college. I understand this very well.

MARTIN: Professor Watkins, to that point, you know, when I was in college, the African American Students' Association had what they called a black book. The students compiled this kind of information and distributed it to other students, saying - because a similar situation arose, you know, where there were incidents that were incidents of crime, black students were often the ones who were identified and who were questioned, and so forth. And they put out the black students put out a manual for other students saying, in essence, the same thing, which is, don't overreact, carry your ID, don't blow your college career based on this kind of interaction.

Would it - Professor Watkins, would it have made a difference to you in your assessment of this if the students had put this out for other students, peer-to-peer, as opposed to it coming from the university?

WATKINS: Absolutely. I think that an email being sent under the banner of the University of Akron is very different from one student talking to another student, or even having those conversations privately, behind closed doors.

I think none of us would disagree that, when police pull you over, you should cooperate and you should be polite. But at the same time, for the university to have an administrator, black, white or otherwise, send an email like this specifically to the African American male students, what it does is it only serves to accelerate the degree of ostracism that many black males already feel in predominantly white campuses. And that's why this email was so problematic.

MARTIN: Let me just clarify.

GILL: Well, if I could just...

MARTIN: I just want to tell you what the numbers are. Just the University of Akron has an enrollment of more than 23,000 students. Approximately 14 percent of whom...

GILL: Actually, we're up to 30,000 now.

MARTIN: Thirty thousand. Okay.

GILL: Yeah.

MARTIN: And the - well, go ahead. Well, then you tell me what percentage of the students are African American.

GILL: Well, approximately 13 to 14 percent of our students are African American, the other percentage going up towards 17 are the minority. So we're about 17 percent minority population - student population on our campus.

You know, one thing - I want to make sure that I make this point. My position is that this was not the University of Akron profiling. What we were having in this particular situation is we had these series of robberies off campus and the individuals doing - who are engaged in these robberies, are living out in the community.

Now, what happens if a robbery has occurred? Our police are on the scene and, all of a sudden, there's two young men walking by who happen to be African American, who may fit the description or have on a hoodie or whatever. They're going to be stopped and asked a question. Now, if you know you haven't done anything wrong, they're our students. They haven't done anything wrong. But we don't want them to overreact and put their selves in an untenable situation.

But the bottom line is we want to ensure that our young African American males come to our institution and graduate from our institution. And, as we both know, the retention and graduation rates of African American males in this country is abysmal. Once we get our students there, we want to graduate them. And I hope we can have the opportunity to talk about all of the other initiatives that we have in place.

We're probably the only institution in the state of Ohio that actually has an African American male learning community, financed by the Knight Foundation, in order to develop more programmatic strategies to increase retention and graduation rates.

MARTIN: Okay. Professor Watkins, a final thought from you? I still don't think you've addressed the question of the fact that these robberies that are the occasion of this investigation were, in fact, committed by African American males. What is to be done in that circumstance, since the people being investigated are young African American males? Obviously, it would be helpful if people would be a little bit more refined in their descriptions. Tall, short. But what else?

WATKINS: Nobody has a problem with a suspect who's African American being questioned by police. We're running into the same issue in Akron that we ran into after 9/11 when, you know, everybody got on a plane and so many people were tempted to be afraid when a Muslim got on the plane with them.

Now, how do you respond to that? You can either respond as a person that says, it's okay to bend some rules because we feel that our safety is in jeopardy. Or you say, look, we are Americans. We have principles. We have certain civil liberties that must be protected and we must proceed accordingly.

So I have no problem with the university officials responding to this crime wave. I mean, who wouldn't do that? But at the end of the day, if you find that the black males are somehow being profiled by police more than other individuals, which I strongly suspect does happen in Akron. Remember Kelley Williams-Bolar is in Akron.

I think that the university...

GILL: Two different subjects, now. Don't...

MARTIN: Okay.

WATKINS: The university should also be willing to confront that racial profiling, as well, and not just say, protect yourself from the police when they decide to stop you.

MARTIN: Boyce Watkins is a professor of finance at Syracuse University. He's the founder of YourBlackWorld.com. He joined us from member station WAER in Syracuse. Lee Gill is the Associate Vice President for Inclusion and Equity and the Chief Diversity Officer at the University of Akron and he joined us from Akron, Ohio.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for joining us.

GILL: Thank you so much.

WATKINS: Thank you for having us.

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