If anyone has seen more than two young black males ages 13-17 wearing hooded sweat shirts and moving by foot, please quickly, run to the phone and call the police. This was the battle cry at a crime meeting in my neighborhood last week in East Nashville, Tennessee. As it happens these are the same sentiments expressed in several alarming articles appearing in local Nashville newspapers to warn people of the imminent danger being posed by young black males.
I was alerted to the weekly neighborhood meeting by someone who attended the week before. In these meetings crime is discussed among local merchants, police department representatives and concerned citizens who have good intentions of keeping “their” neighborhood safe. The person attending the previous week’s meeting left concerned that young black males who live in East Nashville–and who might be wearing hooded sweat shirts– (aren’t most teenagers wearing hood sweatshirts these days?) are automatically targeted as crime suspects–but not just by police, by residents themselves.
I wanted to see if there was validity to this and whether or not some of us white folks walking the streets of East Nashville have some unchallenged and unconscious racial fears although, I knew the answer before I even parked my car.
What was particularly interesting and disturbing about this meeting was the adamancy of some of the white residents who insisted it is crucial to report anyone “who doesn’t belong here”.
To the question of “who doesn’t belong”, it was explained that anyone asking for money is suspect of having criminal intent. And for that you just have to “rely on your gut”. Also, anyone fitting the description articulated above, anyone donning a hooded sweatshirt is also a “reasonable suspect.”
What seemed to be missing from the equation was an understanding of how biases can affect one’s gut and how unreliable our guts can be if we are operating out of fear. If we are convinced and fearful that anyone young, black, and male wearing a hooded sweat shirt poses a threat, then our guts are likely to alarm us to situations that have little or no basis for concern. For instance, two young black males meandering home from school or a group of young black males on their way to the basketball court.
Apparently young white males wearing hooded sweatshirts are not suspect. This was articulated by the representative from the East Nashville Police Department who confirmed the fears and suspicions of the residents: that 100% of the recent crimes committed in East Nashville were indeed committed by black males. In other words “your fears are completely justified.”
His remarks gave this group of concerned citizens carte blanche to criminalize and target all young black males without having to acknowledge that perhaps, just perhaps, the fear and concern that was shared stemmed from something other than the latest statistic from the police. Perhaps this 100% of the crime statistic–which was stated numerous times–served to reinforce the fear and suspicion that many whites hold: all black men are dangerous and pose a threat to the community.
In response to being challenged about the validity of suspecting anyone panhandling or wearing a hooded sweatshirt, one participant asserted that he was just trying to protect people in “our community”. Are we to understand that young black males in “our community” without criminal intent don’t belong or deserve protection as well? Under the circumstances it seems that these young men need protection from us.
Of course there is some truth to the crime statistics in the East Nashville area — although I’m still waiting to receive the official paper work substantiating the 100%. And the very reason these meetings are being held is because there is, of course, crime in East Nashville.
When a historically Black neighborhood becomes the target of “urban renewal”, the influx of middle-class whites not only changes the complexion of the community but after a period of time, there is a feeling of “ownership” accompanied by intolerance for those who “don’t belong”. There is a discomfort between those who have and those who don’t. We have reached that point in East Nashville.
And there is a cost associated with alarm and hysteria. And yes, calling the police because you see two young black males with hooded sweatshirts walking down the street with a basketball is hysteria. One woman at the meeting confirmed that this was indeed–to her–cause for alarm and assured us that it was enough justification for her to call the police.
The psychological damage associated with this kind of thinking are immeasurable. To know that the combination of your clothing style and skin color–NOT behavior as stated by the police representative–somehow signifies danger and suspicion among your neighbors and warrants being stopped by the police is unsettling — to say the very least.
What about all the young black males in “our community” who do not have “crime on their minds” but who happen to fit the clothing profile of the police?
Perhaps these might be worthy topics for discussion at some of these neighborhood gatherings. Reverend Sonnye Dixon, Methodist minister and active member of the community attended some of the first community meetings. “I came away after the first couple realizing that these meetings weren’t about solving the problem, but about changing the face of the community”.
Apparently, according to Reverend Dixon, there seems to be the sentiment that “if you get rid of the poor people, you get rid of the problem.” And in this situation, the poor people means, people of color.
His words certainly resonate with this past week’s meeting where attendees were urged to report anyone “who doesn¹t belong here” and encouraged to conclude that anyone asking for money has criminal intent.
Unfortunately the events and sentiments in East Nashville are not unique or surprising even and certainly not confined to Nashville Tenneessee. When we hear the words “urban renewal” and “gentrification”, what this typically means is middle class white people with resources move in and low income people of color move out.
Reverend Dixon asserts that without community centers and facilities to engage our youth what is left for them to do–and what comes natural to youth–is “hanging out” — yes, in groups of two or more. Unfortunately, this makes them suspicious by the police and apparently, many of the white residents.
Perhaps some of the new residents might garner resources for school programs and mentoring programs that help merge these new neighbors (or invaders) with some of the families who have been in the community far longer than they.
If teens hanging out together — while wearing hooded sweatshirts — is an accepted indicator of crime or criminal intent why not just drive up to High Schools and handcuff them all as they get off the bus in their scary hooded sweatshirts? It gives new meaning to the phrase “fashion police.”
Or perhaps some of the new East Nashvillians might volunteer to get involved and get to know some of the neighborhood children so that they aren’t afraid of “all” of them. If not, as fashions change, so will the criminal profile. But what will remain consistent is the color of skin suspected underneath the clothing.
Molly Secours is a writer/filmmaker/speaker and frequent co-host on “Behind the Headlines” on WFSK 88.1 FM. She can be reached at: [email protected] or www.mollysecours.com