On May 7, 2018, Lolade Siyonbola, a black graduate student in African studies at Yale University, was writing a paper in her common room when she fell asleep. That’s a common enough affliction for college students—but what happened to her when she woke up is not. A white student told her she didn’t have a right to sleep there, and called the police.
What happened to Siyonbola is indicative of a systemic problem in the US: White people consistently call the police on black people in the midst of accomplishing pretty mundane activities. “To anyone who thinks it’s ok to use the police force in this manner, examine yourself for bias against black people,” Siyonbola told me via email. “Question whether you would do that to someone white, and whether you would tolerate such treatment towards your loved ones.”
Siyonbola makes a crucial point: The problem of race-based discrimination in the police force is an issue that pertains not just to law enforcement, but to people whose first instinct in any situation involving a person of color is to call the cops. That explains why the argument that the US needs to find a way to discourage people from needlessly calling the police is gaining traction today.
Bystanders often call the police on black people for minor reasons
The Yale incident is the latest in a series of high-profile cases in the US of black people being confronted by the police while doing nothing wrong. In April 2018, a white woman reported a group of black women, including Bob Marley’s granddaughter, Donisha Prendergast, who had rented an Airbnb for a music festival near San Bernardino, California. The neighbor reported a possible burglary partially because, she later explained, the women did not wave to her. In another recent incident in a Philadelphia Starbucks, two black men, Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson, were reported to the police by a Starbucks employee for simply waiting for their friend without ordering anything.
Nelson and Robinson reached settlements with both the city of Philadelphia, which agreed to pay each man $1 while founding a $200,000 program for young entrepreneurs in under-served communities, and with Starbucks, which awarded both men an undisclosed financial settlement and pledged to include them in the company’s racial bias training conversations. In other cases, victims of racial bias have sued the authorities.
But often, the person who calls the police in the first place gets off scot-free. In the wake of recent events, many have called for fines or other forms of punishment for those who use the authorities as a conduit for their racial biases. But the line is a difficult one to draw: How can outsiders judge whether someone genuinely misread a situation, or allowed ingrained prejudices to guide them? Should intent be taken into account? And is it even possible to know what a student was thinking when she called authorities on a fellow student sleeping in the common room?
The impact that racial profiling has on racial tensions in America cannot be overstated. In 2013, an Ohio man, John Crawford III, was fatally shot inside a Walmart because someone saw him holding a BB gun and called the police on him. The video footage, which is upsetting to watch, is an important lesson in what can go wrong when bystanders alarm the authorities for no reason. Crawford is not an outlier, as the case of Tamir Rice reminds us. Rice, a 12-year-old boy, was shot and killed by a Cleveland police officer in 2014. The officers were responding to a 911 call reporting a person, “probably a juvenile,” who was in a park with a gun—which even the caller noted was “probably fake.” The 911 dispatcher did not convey that context to the police; Rice was holding a toy pellet gun. Such calls have been common throughout American history: a recent article in The Root notes that in 1921, a white store clerk in Tulsa, Oklahoma, called the police after a black shoeshiner accidentally stumbled onto a white woman in an elevator, leading to white mob violence agains the black community that left an estimated hundreds of people dead.
As a recent Vox article put it, “when white people call law enforcement on people of color for unnecessary reasons, they are adding to an existing problem, since minority groups are more likely to face police violence or harsh punishment from the justice system.” A person’s likelihood of calling the police falls along racial lines: Black people are less likely to call the police than white people, and police misconduct or the perception of police injustice can worsen this phenomenon. This is a bad thing for many reasons. Black youth are more likely to be victims of violent crimes than their white peers, and they should have correspondingly high access to authorities who can help protect them. And yet just 14% of black Americans say they have a lot of confidence in their local police. So when bystanders call the police, who must then investigate whether a crime was committed, the bystanders perpetuate racial dynamics that are ultimately hurtful to the authorities and the communities they are meant to protect.
When Quartz asked Siyonbola whether she believed harsher punishments should be in place for those who needlessly call the police on people of color, she answered, “Absolutely.” “Yale also needs more structurally defined consequences for students who mistreat others out of racial bias,” she wrote in an email to Quartz.
In the case of Yale, part of the solution in preventing authorities’ unnecessary involvement may lie with the school’s leadership. In the wake of this incident, Siyonbola says she has received “apology notes from Dean Cooley, Dean of the Graduate School, and Kimberly Goff-Crews, VP of Student Affairs within a day of the incident.” She added that student groups were in the process of meeting with the leadership of the school to “present the demands of students of color in response to this incident,” including “higher rates of recruitment and retention of black students and faculty.”
One would hope that this incident would serve as a learning experience for Yale, where, in 2016, a striking one-third of students reported experiencing bias, discrimination, or harassment. That same year, 56% of students said they did not know who to go to if they experienced race-based discrimination. Siyonbola said she hopes her fellow Yale students leave the school “with a sense of true compassion for others. In every incidence of racial discrimination, real people with families and dreams are adversely affected. Examine yourself for bias and actively work to diminish it and any mistreatment inspired by it.”
There’s a moment in the videos that Siyonbola posted on Facebook that speaks to the deep racial tensions that still govern interactions between people of color and authorities in the US today. When one of the officers arrived on the scene and asks Siyonbola for her student ID, Siyonbola demands to know why she’s being asked to identify herself. The officer responds: “We need to prove that you belong here.” But why is it only ever black people who must prove that they belong?
This reporting is part of a series supported by a grant from the Bernard van Leer Foundation.