By Kaitlyn Abrams
It was 3 A.M. in South Africa about two months ago. I was studying abroad at the time and had woken-up coincidentally in the night. Hundreds of messages began flooding my phone. These messages were frantically written with typos, posted online, in group messages and through campus-wide emails. “Law enforcement is on campus for reports of an alleged armed person in the Coop,” read a Campus Advisory email. “They are searching the building. Shelter in place. If you are off-campus, stay away. Updates will be provided.“
I stayed up all night, texting my friends, confirming they were safe, hidden, OK. Rumors flew around campus of the whereabouts of the shooter(s), whether there had been shots fired, if they were knocking on classroom doors. Eventually the threat was declared an active shooter, which, according to Homeland
Security, indicates an “individual that is actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in confined and populated area.” I feared for the lives of all my classmates. And then I feared for a whole new reason.
After hours of campus-wide lock-down, a student called campus safety, admitting he thought he may have been the reason for the call. This student had been walking into the O’Connor Campus center to work on an art project, carrying a hot glue gun. With his shirt off from the rain, this student, a
Black man, apparently looked like a threat to another anonymous student. Without giving him a second glance, a student called campus safety, declaring that there was a shooter on campus.
When I first mentioned a shooter, who did you imagine? Was it a man? Was he Black? Studies
show that when crimes are described to participants, people most often picture Black
men as the criminal. As explained in Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow,”Black men are thought of as criminals from a young age. Thus, they are more often targeted by police for investigation, apprehended for crimes and jailed. This holds true despite similar crime rates across different races.
Similarly, black men are considered dangerous and threatening in innocent scenarios.
A 2001study featured in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology demonstrates this automatic association with Blackness and crime. The study used photographs of Black and White men either holding a gun or another neutral object, like a soda can.Participants were asked to quickly decide
whether to shoot the target. Consistent with other studies, participants were more likely to mistake a Black target as armed when he was not, and a White target as unarmed when he was.
Consider now this student walking innocently through the student center with a hot glue gun. Consider another student who makes an automatic judgement on the situation, deciding that a glue gun was a loaded gun. Which student put more people at risk?
The truth is, the student who called campus safety on a judgement call put every Black man on Colgate’s campus at risk. This blatant instance of racial profiling could have led to the murder of any Black student on our campus, putting a sort of ‘hit’ out on any Black man who could be this shooter. In this moment I
feared for the lives of all Black students on my campus. Not only did bias play a role in the actions of the student caller, but the way the matter was dealt with by law enforcement was heightened, due to the race of the accused.
Rumors about the alleged armed student reached Campus Safety, causing them to send emails out that there was an active shooter on campus. As University President Brian Casey said, this was a profound error on the part of Campus Safety, contributed to by racial bias, that resulted in the situation to be dealt with in an escalated manner that was not warranted.We cannot dismiss this event as singular. Yet, every
day, students of color on Colgate’s campus are met with racism, microaggressions and a sense that they are unsafe.
Outside Colgate, innocent Black men are murdered for split-second decisions made by cops that lead to unnecessary deaths. We cannot forget the many infamous stories of young Black men assumed to be threats while going about their daily lives — buying skittles in a hoodie (Trayvon Martin, 17), selling cigarettes (Eric Garner, 43) and of course, Tamir Rice (12) who was shot by police who mistook his toy gun for a real one.
If you are a White student like I am, we are responsible for this pain and fear existing on our campuses, even if we believe we are ‘good’ or ‘liberal.’ We cannot excuse ourselves from the problem.
As the great- Maya Angelou said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then
when you know better, do better.” Let’s do better.