White People Calling The Police On Black People Is Not New White people have called the police on African-Americans during everyday activities. We look into the historical reasons authorities are called when white people felt uncomfortable.

White People Calling The Police On Black People Is Not New

White People Calling The Police On Black People Is Not New

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/628694725/628694726" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

White people have called the police on African-Americans during everyday activities. We look into the historical reasons authorities are called when white people felt uncomfortable.


By now, much of America has seen the video of two black men being taken from a Philadelphia Starbucks in handcuffs. This is from back in April. The manager called the police after the men were just sitting there waiting for someone for a business meeting without ordering anything. Other related videos have followed. In the past few months, several white people have now been recorded calling police on black people who were just going about their daily lives in myriad places - the dorm, the pool, mowing the lawn. Karen Grigsby Bates from our Code Switch team looks at why those calls have become so prevalent.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: The video of that Starbucks encounter went viral in a matter of hours. People still talk about it. Writer Melissa DePino was in the Starbucks on Spruce Street when it happened and was shocked.

MELISSA DEPINO: I know these things happen, but I've never actually physically witnessed it myself. And when I saw it, I thought, people need to see this.

BATES: Some people argue that the tape might not show the whole story, but witnesses agree it does.

ROBIN DIANGELO: Because we lived so separately and because it doesn't happen to us, those of us who are white, we haven't believed them.

BATES: That's Robin DiAngelo. She's white and has spent her professional life writing, training, teaching white people about race and social justice issues. Her latest book is "White Fragility: Why It's So Hard For White People To Talk About Racism." Many, maybe most white people, DiAngelo says, tend to second-guess black complaints about racism.

DIANGELO: Are you sure that's what they meant? I think you're oversensitive. You're playing the race card.

BATES: But technology has made it a little harder to make that argument, says professor Jody Armour.

JODY ARMOUR: Thanks to social media, there's no longer as much impunity-free discrimination that people can express toward others.

BATES: Armour teaches at the University of Southern California's Gould School of Law, and many of his classes and lectures are about how race is used and misused by the legal system.

ARMOUR: You can look at what's going on right now as just an expression of the age-old black tax. The black tax is the price black people pay because of stereotypes and prejudice in America in their official interactions with police and in their everyday interactions with the ordinary citizens.

BATES: Writer Robin DiAngelo agrees that white supervision of the black presence is very American.

DIANGELO: We have always policed the bodies of people of color, and again, black people in particular. The Jim Crow South is a classic example, white flight in the North, school segregation, gerrymandering.

BATES: Add to that cutting the lawn, delivering newspapers, visiting the pool. Oh, and this.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We have this lady that's been walking up from Mather and, like, for no apparent reason is walking from house to house.

BATES: That was 911 dispatch tape, and that lady was Oregon State Representative Janelle Bynum, who was campaigning in her district. She's up for re-election this fall. And yep, Bynum is black. It later got straightened out. The cop who came was great. The caller apologized. And they even laughed about it. But Starbucks witness Melissa DePino says white people calling the police on brown people like Bynum need to stop and think.

DEPINO: What they don't seem to understand is that calling the police when a person of color for just going about their lives is extremely dangerous given the way our policing and criminal justice system works.

BATES: That was uppermost in Michelle Saahene mind when she sat in that Philly Starbucks watching police arrest those two men. Saahene, a life coach, is black and says she'd spent an hour there watching the manager let some people use the space without ordering anything at all.

MICHELLE SAAHENE: There was a gentleman sitting next to me, a white man sitting next to me for 45 minutes who didn't buy anything. I saw a white woman mid-jog come in to use the bathroom and leave.

BATES: When the arrest began, Saahene says, no one spoke up at first. So she approached the police, even though she was afraid to. She didn't know if it would make a difference.

SAAHENE: But I have to try. I have to say something so these guys know that they're not alone.

BATES: USC's Jody Armour says this is a role sympathetic white people can and should play.

ARMOUR: First and foremost, white allies can start by taking advantage of their white privilege to make statements that blacks can't make, to be in places that blacks often aren't.

BATES: And Robin DiAngelo agrees - white silence in the presence of racism is complicity. Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.


Copyright © 2018 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.