Race, Police & Justice: Voices from the Colgate Community

I have lived in Hamilton, N.Y. for almost 16 years. In all that time, I have never been approached by Campus Safety, and I have had three encounters with the Hamilton Police. One time a police officer asked me for information about one of my neighbors, once I was pulled over because of a broken headlight and once I was caught legitimately speeding. None of these encounters resulted in a ticket. Instead, the police officers were genial and kind; they let me off with a laugh.

I am a middle-aged woman of East Asian descent. Lately I’ve been asking my friends and colleagues about their experiences with the local police. If they are White or Asian, their experiences are just like mine: one or two encounters per decade, always friendly, never a ticket. However, my friends who are African-American and Latino describe a completely different world here. They tell me about getting pulled over five, six, nine times in their first year. They hear the sirens wailing behind them even when they are perfectly obeying law, and when the police officer shows up at the car window, their only question is, “What are you doing in this town?” My African American and Latino students describe Campus Safety officers pulling them over for no reason, questioning them when they have picnics on a campus lawn or barging into their parties (when no one is drinking) but ignoring the drunken revels of the fraternities down the street.

I am a sociologist by training, and I know that an anecdote or two is not the equivalent of rigorous data. But I also know that each anecdote is a data point, and when enough pile up, it is a signal to do some serious research. Fortunately, one of my honors students has chosen to do her thesis on how African-American and White students experience policing in Hamilton. Her preliminary data reveal support for what I learned from my friends’ stories: African-American students are living in a completely different world than I am when it comes to the police here in Hamilton. African American students have many negative experiences with police officers, even when they feel that they are doing nothing wrong. Meanwhile, White students dislike Campus Safety, but they have significantly fewer encounters, and they often get let off the hook with a wink.

To accuse the police of racism is a heavy thing. It’s 2016, and everyone knows that racism is wrong and evil. It’s natural to feel defensive if you know that you’re a good guy doing your best, and that the people that you work with are good people. But the people don’t need to be racist for the policing to be racist. Institutional racism means that if the rules and policies are racist, you end up with racist results just by carrying them out. One example would be the 1986 laws which legislated that people had to have 100 times as much cocaine as crack to receive the same punishment, despite the fact that they are the same drug and cocaine is more popular. The only difference was that the users of crack were predominantly poorer African Americans, while cocaine abusers were usually White and wealthier. (Today, it’s 18 times.) A police officer simply carrying out his or her duty would end up treating people of different races differently. It’s possible that something similar is happening here in Hamilton – that certain practices and policies are leading to different racial outcomes. If so, we need to look at them.

But we also need to admit that good people are racist. I know that because I am. I grew up with a mother who assured me that Chinese people were the best in the world and told me all kinds of terrible things about White people, Japanese people, Black people and Mexicans. (All Latinos were Mexicans to her). When I walk into a classroom, I have to fight my assumptions and prejudices about Asian females (They must be smart and hardworking, like me!), African-Americans, Latinos, rich White kids, athletes, fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, and so on. I’ve had an African American student call me out on the racialized language I used in class. She was right, and it was a mortifying experience for me, a professor who teaches about race. But it was an opportunity to learn, and I’m going to spend the rest of my life learning to be less racist. I call upon the members of the Hamilton Police and Campus Safety to join me in that work.