Continuing my series of responses to the New York Times’, The Ethicist, without imposing values, here is my take on today’s post, “Should I Report the Biased Remarks of a Campus Cop?”
I am a graduate student at a prestigious university in the rural United States. On a recent evening, I found myself locked out of my campus office after the administrative staff in the building had left for the day. Sheepishly, I called the campus police for help, and soon after, an officer — a white man, probably in his 60s — showed up with the master keys. Because I felt bad about using police resources for such a silly oversight, I was apologetic and very friendly. He opened the door and then asked for two forms of identification, just for the purposes of procedure.
A little bit about my background: Though I am an international student on a student visa, I’ve spent enough time in the United States to have an accent that is barely perceptible. I also happen to be light-skinned (someone who might check “white Hispanic” in a survey) and have been told that I dress and carry myself like an upper-middle-class white American. In other words, problematic as it might be, I can pass as white. I realize the privilege this carries in my encounters with law enforcement. (I was once pulled over for running three red lights in a row, and upon hearing my explanation, the officer let me go without even a warning.)
On the evening in question, it was no different: The campus policeman opened the door before checking my ID. I made conversation, talking about the terrible state of the building, and he commented on the terrible state of the university. He criticized the university’s recent decision to open a campus in a nearby city, which took much-needed jobs and resources from the area. He remarked on how long my name was (as a Latin American, I use both my father and mother’s names) and asked how to pronounce it. I said I was from South America and explained how the names worked. When he replied by asking me if I was going to stay in the country after graduation, I suspected where the conversation might go. I answered that I wasn’t sure, but that if there was one place I would stay, it would be this little town because it is such a lovely community. He proceeded to tell me that this place wasn’t what it used to be — that you could not just say what you thought anymore. I nodded and smiled uncomfortably. He then said it was outrageous that the university was going to put body cameras on campus police officers; it would keep him from doing his job, he said, because he would not be able to have honest conversations with people. Reluctantly, I nodded again. Then he said that he used to work for the local Police Department and that he knew the campus well and how much things had changed. “There used to be stabbings and rapes every night in the dorms,” he assured me. Thinking about recent accusations of rape and campus statistics nationwide, I replied that there were still a lot of rapes. At that point, he said that 80 percent of rape accusations now were “just to get attention” and that the real problem was that “fake accusations” made it worse for the “real ones.” He concluded, “Women don’t like to hear it, but that is true.” I replied, “Including this woman.” Recognizing that we were alone in the building and that, police officer or not, this man had a gun, I decided not to pursue it and was grateful when his phone rang and he finally left.
Though I don’t think of myself as a victim of his bias, I am torn about whether I should do something with the knowledge that a member of the campus police thinks and says these things. I thought about filing a report with the university office that documents bias, which might lead him to be asked to go through some training, but that seems exactly the kind of thing someone like him would resent (he told me how great his son, who is a police officer in Virginia, had it, because he didn’t have to go to any training). Not only do I feel that if he were confronted by an administrator, he would know it was me, but also that it might not help show him the effect of his beliefs. I thought about inviting him out for a coffee and having an honest conversation, but my boyfriend thinks that is silly. Yet given that I benefit so greatly from the unfair privilege of passing as white, I feel that doing nothing leaves others who are more visibly members of minorities, as well as women, at risk, and that seems irresponsible. What to do? Name Withheld
My response: What could a white man have done, if anything, that wouldn’t raise your suspicions?
“Recognizing that we were alone in the building and that, police officer or not, this man had a gun” I’m not sure what you’re insinuating, but I don’t imagine you’d say the same about a woman, yet a gun would make her as strong relative to you. Do you consider a man’s mere presence threatening? What do you think about men?
I don’t understand what you meant by all your nodding being reluctant. You talk about bias being something that can make someone a victim, but seem to treat people’s skin color and sex as defining them and how people treat them, which doesn’t sound like treating everyone equally.
“He proceeded to tell me that this place wasn’t what it used to be — that you could not just say what you thought anymore.” It sounds like the system where you are gives you ample resources to silence him—that is, that you have more political power than he does.
The New York Times response:
This police officer clearly has attitudes — and dubious beliefs — that could make him respond unsympathetically to the victim of a rape crime. But there’s more going on in your account than this. You talk about “passing” as white and about your responsibility to visible minorities (a commendable sentiment), and you evoke a sense of free-floating bias. Still, you describe nothing that confirms your conclusion that the officer would treat minorities unfairly. When he learned you were a Latin American, you report no sudden chill; what ensued was a conversation about naming customs.
Demographics aside, what do you really know about him? Maybe he goes home to an African-American wife and a couple of mixed-race kids. When you say you “suspected where the conversation might go” after you talked about coming from Latin America, you were going with your stereotypes about middle-aged, rural, white, working-class men. And while a guy with a gun can be scary, you don’t appear to have grounds for supposing you were in danger when you disagreed with him about rape statistics. Your boyfriend is surely right about inviting the fellow out for a coffee: Given your preconceptions (and, perhaps, your air of class privilege), the officer could well experience your attempt to correct him as more condescending than enlightening.
What to do? You’d like police officers on your campus to have sensible, informed views about rape and to recognize the importance of objective records of police-civilian interactions. One option you have is to contact the Title IX coordinator on your campus. Tell the coordinator that you’re not making a formal complaint but that you have reason to think that campus police officers would benefit from more education on sexual assault (and a discussion about the advantages of objective records of police-civilian interactions). Suggest that she bring this up with the campus police chief. Explain why you don’t want the chief to let the officers know that this started with a specific report from a student. While your officer would doubtless resent a special focus on him, proper training for him and his colleagues might improve campus policing a bit.
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