I was really psyched up to write my column for this week. I was going to blast the Department of Public Safety for the vague suspect descriptions and general emphasis on making sure black people don’t act up while white members of the campus community are allowed to run relatively free. I was going to complain about how sick I am of being a suspect in the unarmed robbery spree that started in the summer and continued into this fall. But somewhere between Friday night and Monday night I lost some of my fervor. I’m still angry that I’m always a suspect, but simply throwing blame at campus publications isn’t really going to solve anything.
To a certain extent, I’m still going to get on DPS for listing one suspect of a Sept. 15 unarmed robbery as wearing “baggy hip-hop clothes.” Exactly what are baggy hip-hop clothes? Are they Kanye West-style preppy sweaters in loud colors? Are they 1992 MC Hammer-style Genie Pants? Are they baggy versions of Run-DMC-style jean outfits that Dr. Dre wore in the late 1990s and early 2000s? Or are they just anything resembling loose-fitting jeans and a T-shirt/hooded sweatshirt/jersey? Unfortunately, my guess is the latter of the four. Nevertheless, the question remains, what are “baggy hip-hop clothes?” Theoretically, this university is a very progressive, diverse, tolerant place, but somehow the suspect descriptions disseminated by the University’s law enforcement agency are stuck somewhere in a place where all black people are criminals and we should all be feared.
Let it be known: I’m angry about being both a potential victim and suspect of the crime spree that made it all the way to several Detroit media outlets. So are all of my black male friends – it’s been something we’ve talked about my entire time at this university. It’s been discussed on blogs, in The Spectrum and in countless other settings. We’re concerned that these descriptions just perpetuate the stereotypes that black men are violent, dangerous criminals. I hate to disappoint people, but almost all of the black men I have come across at this university are concerned with getting degrees and making it in a world where it so often feels as though the odds are stacked against them.
I’m angry that in the liberal, progressive city of Ann Arbor, so many law enforcement officials are so quick to assume that at a black event there’s going to be trouble. Every year at the Icebreaker, an event thrown by the National Pan-Hellenic Council, the police stand on the front steps of the Union and essentially wait for someone to act up so they can take them around the corner to the police vans waiting between West Quadrangle Residence Hall and the Fleming Administration Building. I have been told numerous stories of black people being questioned by both the Ann Arbor Police Department and DPS while white people engaging in various illegal and/or destructive activities go unconfronted. I have seen four police cars swarm the scene when a lone black man accosted several white males walking through the Diag. I have also seen somewhat disorderly behavior at predominantly white fraternity parties get ignored by the police. These claims may seem unsubstantiated, as the racial profiling by the AAPD and DPS has probably never been written about. But I guarantee that a large proportion of the black people on campus know exactly what I am talking about.
In the aftermath of Friday’s shooting and Monday’s front-page Daily article (Frat Party Shooting Injures Freshman, 09/26/2005), many people in the black community were up in arms about the suspect being described as a black man, 5’9″ wearing a white Tee and a dark baseball cap. Apparently that could have been any number of people at the party. Blame for this description is being thrown all over the place – at this newspaper for example. The thing we forget to realize is that – barring some conspiracy – a black person gave this description. And unless someone knows something I don’t, the shooter was actually a black male, about 5’9″ and was wearing a white Tee and a dark hat.
I was going to dedicate the column solely to venting about always being a suspect, but that isn’t going to serve any purpose. Harassing this publication is not going to do the black community much good. Instead, what we need to be doing is going to DPS and the AAPD and asking them, “What goes into a suspect description?” We need to explain to them why “baggy, hip-hop clothes” is an ineffective, racist remark. We need to ask them, “Why there is so much emphasis on having a presence at every black function?” We need to dedicate a lot of the energy spent on complaining to making sure the gentleman that was accidentally shot is OK. We need to dedicate the incredible intelligence we possess to figuring out how to prevent non-students from Ann Arbor, Detroit and Ypsilanti from infringing on what little black party scene we have. There are no easy answers to the problems facing the black campus community. That’s why I’ve made so few suggestions. But just because real change is so difficult doesn’t mean we can settle for making misguided complaints that suggest cosmetic solutions to huge cultural problems. There is unparalleled intelligence in the black community at this university. It’s time we began to use it to make real change.
Betts can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.