On Nov. 11, a number of concerned University students, faculty, administrators, staff and representatives from the University’s Department of Public Safety convened at the Law School to discuss an issue critical to our current reality in Ann Arbor: race, racism and safety. What led to the organization of the town hall meeting was a rather dubious crime alert which described a black male suspect as being “bald or with dread locks” and wearing either an “orange, red or black” sweatshirt.
Now, anyone in their right mind knows that it’s impossible to confuse a baldhead with dread locks. This vague description fits a number of black men who attend the University, myself included — a black male Ph.D. student with no criminal record, whose academic merit at the University of Florida and the University of Wisconsin-Madison rightfully earned a space here at the University of Michigan three years ago. These and other similar alerts lack a specificity that could lead to apprehending the suspect.
My central concern, however, is that this description and the medium it was pipelined through — via e-mail — results in a unique practice of racial profiling that perpetually typecasts African-American men as pathological menaces to Ann Arbor’s society. I call this practice viral racism because, like a virus, these descriptions spread through the University system and thus perpetuate a gendered formation of blackness that’s inherently criminal and deviant. This viral racism is a subtle practice of racial profiling that’s legally and federally protected in the name of campus “safety” vis-à-vis the Clery Act.
While the town hall meeting and its reception were positive, students’ responses to The Michigan Daily’s coverage of the meeting deserve critical attention. These comments were accusatory and representative of racial politics endemic to the University’s campus climate — racial politics that can perhaps explain why students of color do not feel comfortable at the University. Comments attacked Philosophy Prof. Elizabeth Anderson with counterproductive personal attack, calling her an idiot and a moron because she dared to challenge the need of race as a descriptor in DPS crime alerts. Critics of Anderson take race for granted as a descriptive category, unfazed even by vague descriptions as “baldhead or with dreadlocks.” I am disturbed by the fact that of those who condemned Anderson, none were willing to acknowledge this appalling crime alert description.
Indeed, there were a number of comments that failed to comprehend the history of race and racial profiling endemic to Ann Arbor and the United States. Critical to this discussion is the racialization and regulation of “safety” on campus. What body of students benefit from safety and at whose expense? This was the question that town hall participants addressed. DPS crime alerts provided a platform to discuss privilege and power, as well as pathology and marginalization.
Let us all be more conscious of the crime alerts. At the town hall meeting, archival research was presented of crime alerts, from 2007 to 2011, as opposed to those reported in the Daily’s report and issued by DPS, which only represented a few short months of data. This method was done to highlight a politics of disproportion whereby, according to 2010 U.S. Census data and University demographics, the total number of black men who attend the University and those who reside in Ann Arbor was substantially less than reported percentages in said crime alerts. In 2010, 3.28 percent of men at the University were black; and the total number of black male residents in Ann Arbor was less than 7.7 percent. Between November 2007 and October 2011, 62 incidents provided descriptions of the suspect whereby black men represented 48.3 percent of alleged offenders. Men of color (including Latino, Asian, black and mix raced) comprised 51.5 percent of these descriptions.
What factors explain this disproportionate reporting pattern?
Instead of attacking town hall organizers and panelists, it’s time to institute social and institutional change here at the University.
I will close in an attempt to capture the essence of Anderson’s presentation. Anderson’s central questions, cogently articulated throughout her presentation, were: Why are we so obsessed with race in this country? What value, or added value, does race have — particularly for those with access to institutional power compared to those who do not? She argued that if race is important and necessary, then we ought to be more diligent and ethical in the transfer of reportage.
David Green is a Rackham student.