Waiting While Black in Philadelphia Can Get You Arrested

What happened in a Philadelphia Starbucks is another example of the indignities Black people face every day.

By Reggie Shuford, executive director, ACLU of Pennsylvania

(Image Via Twitter)

Late last week, two Black men in Philadelphia were doing what people do every day in this city — they waited in a coffee shop to meet an associate. While they were engaged in this mundane activity, they were removed from the Starbucks cafe at 18th and Spruce Streets in handcuffs by Philadelphia police officers.

This is another example of the kind of daily indignities that African-Americans face every day in Philadelphia and around the country. We can’t even wait in a coffee shop for a friend without the possibility that someone will call the police. Two days after the news broke of the incident, I’m angrier now than I was when I first heard about it.

The neighborhood where this incident occurred is known as Rittenhouse Square. For those not familiar with Philadelphia, it’s a tony neighborhood of beautiful townhouses and high-end apartment buildings.

It’s also the neighborhood with the highest rates of racial disparities in stops and frisks by police in all of Philadelphia. In 2010, the ACLU of Pennsylvania sued the city because the Philadelphia Police Department’s use of stop-and-frisk was discriminatory. Our data showed that African-Americans were far more likely to be stopped and frisked than their white counterparts. Making matters worse, those stops were often without any justifiable cause.

A year later, the city agreed to a consent decree to settle the case. That agreement requires the city to collect data on the PPD’s use of stop-and-frisk — including the demographic information of people who are stopped and the reasons why they were stopped — as well as to train officers to eliminate bias-based policing.

The police service area where the Starbucks is located has a Black population of just 3 percent. But 67 percent of the stops that occurred there in the first half of 2017 were of African-Americans. The two other police service areas in this district — known as District 9 — show similar lopsided disparities. In one of the bordering police service areas, a whopping 84 percent of pedestrians stopped were African-Americans in a neighborhood with a Black population of 16 percent.

Seven years after the city agreed to do better, we still see consistent racial disparities in stops and frisks. Yet, in a video statement in response to the incident, Philadelphia Police Commissioner Richard Ross had the nerve to say that his officers “did absolutely nothing wrong.”

His statement, the data the city has collected on stops, and this incident all lead me to wonder if Ross and his leaders in this district and this police service area, Capt. Danielle Vales and Lt. Jeffrey Rabinovitch, are serious about ending racial profiling in this neighborhood and throughout the city.

There was no need for a Starbucks employee to call 911 because two men were waiting for an associate in their store. And even after the police were called, the police did not have to end the situation by arresting these men. If Commissioner Ross is right that these officers followed policy, then the policy needs to change. Starbucks may be able to decide who sits in its store, but only the police could decide to arrest these men.

Racial bias and discrimination are so steeped in American culture that those of us who experience it on a regular basis have learned to live as second-class citizens in the country of our birth. Many folks have expressed pride or relief because the two men remained calm. I get that. I am glad, too. We have seen far too many incidents that have quickly spiraled out of control.

But there is an ugly side to that as well. Black people, men in particular, are not allowed the full range of emotional expression in public spaces. Even when an emotion other than being calm is warranted, we have been taught and have learned to police our emotions. No matter how badly we are being treated or how much our dignity is being assailed, we have to be the ones maintaining control and being responsible for de-escalating these situations.

We are not allowed to be angry. Or loud. Or boisterous. Or too happy or too celebratory. In other words, we’re not allowed to be human. We police ourselves because we know that others are already policing us. That, too, takes a toll.

As this story has gathered attention over the last three days, many people are doing back flips to justify what happened here. It is well past time to quit making excuses for racist behavior. Enough with the rationalizations and alternative theories. Believe us. We are credible messengers of our own truths and lived experiences. We shouldn’t have to rely on a white person or a video to validate us.

“Everyone’s a little bit racist”

By Paloma Wu, Legal Fellow, ACLU of Pennsylvania

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At this American civil rights impasse, we are up against a powerful and dangerous fantasy: the delusion that our intention to be race neutral makes us so, and the delusion that our intention not to discriminate means we don’t. No longer are slur-hurling city officials, police-protected lynch mobs, and smoke-filled redlining rooms the most formidable force opposing equality in America. It is all of us.

A growing body of research on implicit racial bias shows that about 75% of whites and Asians demonstrate an implicit bias in favor of whites compared to blacks, and over 200 related published studies show that implicit bias influences judgment, decisions, and behavior. An onslaught of images, lore, and language continuously tie brown and black skin in with the negative. Implicit racial bias operates powerfully but in the background, at the unconscious level, impacting our judgment and shaping our decisions such that we often act contrary to our conscious intent to behave in a race neutral way. Most insidiously, our implicit racial bias calls the shots without us registering that it has. We reason away the race biased logic that formed the basis of our decision, and we cleave to the far more flattering race-blind version of ourselves that we deeply personally identify with.

Since taking the well-validated Implicit Association Tests (“IATs”), I cannot claim to be more sturdily built. I am ashamed, but not surprised, to learn that I strongly associated black people with having weapons on the Weapons-Harmless Objects IAT, and that was just the beginning. Despite who I am, what I have done with my life, who I intend to be, and that I am neither white nor male, I am a petri dish of implicit racial and gender bias. Sharing my corner of shame: most of the eight million IAT takers, including Malcom Gladwell. Gladwell, who is half black, deftly explained in his bestselling book, “Blink,” that his “moderate automatic preference for whites” on the IAT left him “feeling creepy.” For others, the revelation of racial bias is embarrassing, deeply humbling, and disturbing.

After you take a few IATs, consider this:

  • White Americans, on average, vastly overestimate the criminality of blacks.
  • Many Americans incorrectly believe that black Americans use more drugs than whites: five times as many white than black people use drugs in this country, but black Americans are sent to prison for drug offenses at 10 times the rate as white Americans.
  • “Shooter bias” studies show that black and white shooters both show bias against blacks in both response times and errors, meaning we will shoot black people more often and faster than we will whites.
  •  In shooter bias studies, we even pick up the pace if first shown a negative media article about a black perpetrator of a crime.
  •  Americans of all races more often see blacks as perpetrators and whites as victims; in one study, 70% of viewers of a crime story who falsely recalled seeing a picture of the perpetrator believed that perpetrator had been a black man.

Then consider how a blazing color line separates blacks and whites in crime and punishment:

A select few departments are trying to incorporate racial bias training to curb the tide, but the tide is nearly as powerful as our fantasy that it does not exist. The common refrain of police officers, elected officials, district attorneys, and policy makers with skin in this game is not “We Shall Overcome,” but rather—“We Did Not Intend.” But our knowledge about implicit racial bias in this era of political correctness renders the intent issue moot. Equal protection questions can only be addressed through data and analysis—do our laws in fact discriminate and are they in fact discriminatorily enforced. There is no silver bullet, but it is a necessary step, along with our acceptance of implicit racial bias as the norm: the unintentional constant that we must build in to any algorithm we use to formulate a next step—if we want it to be forward.

Also, feel free to sing along to this Avenue Q song, for a boost with the acceptance part…

(Stay tuned for Part 2 of this post: “The Effects of Implicit Racial Bias in Law Enforcement and Lessons from the Era of Anti-Lynching Legislation.”)

This post is part of a series in honor of Black History Month.

Paloma Wu joined the ACLU as an awardee of the 2014 Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP Public Service Fellowship. As a Simpson litigation associate, Paloma worked on antitrust, securities, and intellectual property matters, and she represented clients in successful prisoner civil rights (Pogue v. Diep) and asylum cases.