Recently, a group of students and faculty called upon Providence College to stop racial profiling. Students have been followed by the police, verbally abused and detained. Do you think this can't happen in academia? It does.
It was in academia that I first learned about the concept of "driving while black." I was a passenger in a beat-up Honda with three other grad students -- one East Indian, two black, all Ivy League kids. We had just finished a pricey meal at a fancy steak house, Monty's, with a top floor view of Westwood Village.
My new friends graciously decided to drop me in my childhood home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood. We got pulled over right as we pulled up to the door.
It is sad but most people of color have had to deal with this kind of experience. Sure, it was a virgin experience for me but my friends had undergone such a violation so many times that it was hardly worth a follow-up conversation.
When I got my degree and scored a job at a highly regarded liberal arts college in the Midwest, I was recruited with tales of the wonderful qualities of small-town life. "We're crime free," said one colleague. "We leave our doors unlocked and the keys in the car." That was a typical refrain. And it is true: you will not get pulled over for more than a DUI if you're white. But if you're a person of color, it's another story... because you have brought the crime to this safe haven. You are urban. You clearly don't belong.
One of my proudest moments came when I was pulled over in an alley by the local police in my "safe" little town. I had by then developed my own strategies. I played the absent-minded professor and flipped through all the IDs in my wallet -- the college's little red-and-white swipe card, my AAA membership, the Getty Institute stack reader card, my Costco club membership, my University of California library ID -- until I arrived at my Iowa driver's license. "I'm such an absent-minded professor," I said. "I'm glad I didn't leave this in my office." The policeman let us off. He was even apologetic. My wife was relieved. I was proud of myself.
We take our triumphs where we can find them but it seems to me that this experience -- surveillance, detention, questioning -- is indicative of the larger climate at a university. It was common for people -- colleagues and townsfolk -- to express doubt about my employment at the college. It was inconceivable that I could actually be an English professor. My own department secretary informed me that I knew nothing about Shakespeare and so really had no business looking over the job applications for the Renaissance specialist. And, too, when parents came to shake the professor's hands during the numerous meet-and-greets, they often bypassed me in favor of an administrative assistant.
It is the climate of policing, then, that signals other kinds of inequities in the academic machine. And it is especially in places that mythologize their safety and openness that this climate can quickly fester. We should take seriously the complaints of the concerned students and faculty at Providence College; if they're talking about it now, it's probably gotten way out of control.