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Business Casual: The Fear Factor

It’s been a while, but I recall sitting in the food court of a local mall with my husband and daughter and a friend of hers one evening when a group of 11- or 12-year-old African-American boys showed up. They were noisy, even a bit rowdy, but not threatening. I probably wondered if they were there by themselves and maybe even wished they’d turn the volume down.

I didn’t have time to wonder much of anything else, because all of a sudden the mall security folks appeared, rounded up the kids and marched them out of the food court and through a doorway. The door closed quickly behind them; when it opened again, we saw one of the kids literally up against the wall – arms raised, legs spread – being patted down.

My husband and I looked at each other and said at exactly the same time, using the same words: “They wouldn’t do that to a white kid.”

There was a time, when I told that story, that white people were surprised and black people were surprised that I was surprised. Nowadays, I doubt anybody is surprised.

Who hasn’t seen news reports, Facebook postings or YouTube videos of police being called on two black men sitting in a Philadelphia Starbucks waiting for a friend; a white woman (aka “BBQ Becky”) calling authorities in Oakland because a black family was using a charcoal grill to barbecue in a public park; another white woman summoning campus police because a black student fell asleep in a common area of a dorm at Yale?

Or, more chillingly, four police officers in Mesa, Ariz., beating an unarmed black man because he declined to sit down on the floor as ordered?

I can’t help wondering what’s inside people’s heads that propels them to act that way.

My guess would be fear, mixed in with a lot of other things, perhaps, including insecurity about their own place in the world. I understand fear. I’m afraid of roaches, inattentive drivers and guns, among other things. I’m afraid of people who want to do me harm. Sometimes that involves a snap judgment. (Is that angry-looking man walking my way mad at me in particular or at women in general, or is he simply talking on his cell phone?)

I get that it often feels safer to gravitate toward the familiar. The world can be a dangerous place. Vigilance is warranted. So is caution.

But so is common sense. What’s threatening about two guys in a coffee shop or a family fixing barbecue or a sleeping student? Were they pointing guns or making threats?

It’s likely in all these instances there were other things going on – at Starbucks, lack of appropriate training that gets down to the level of individual employees; lack of a clear policy on whether people are welcome only if they place an order; an understanding of what constitutes a threatening situation and procedures for handling that situation.

The fear factor is hard to deal with, but related issues actually have solutions or at least the possibility of solutions.

(The Starbucks incident brought a swift and drastic response from company management, which closed 8,000 stores across the nation one afternoon for employee racial-bias training.)

In Oakland, there apparently has been some gentrification in the area that is changing the demographics of the neighborhood around the park – i.e., white people moving into what has been a predominantly black neighborhood. Maybe local officials, police and civic associations need to step up and work together.

On the Yale campus – well, having a lot of smart people concentrated in one place doesn’t necessarily minimize the need for communication, interaction and oversight.

At the Mesa police department, the officers involved in the beating were placed on leave pending review. It was heartening, if overdue, that the department banned beating people over the head in the absence of a truly serious threat. It seems obvious there is something lacking in the training provided. Here’s hoping that will be addressed.

Will changes in training, policies, procedures, communications and community interaction lessen the fear that underscores so much of what we have been seeing? Lord, I hope so. But it wouldn’t hurt if individuals opened their hearts and minds to examine their own fears and prejudices.

If I witnessed that mall scene today, I hope I would do more than just be surprised.

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