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Another Son Stopped for Being Black at Yale

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”
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The columnist Charles M. Blow of the New York Times has sparked debate this week by his disclosure that his son, a student at Yale College, was stopped at gunpoint by a Yale police officer who said he resembled a robbery suspect.

I’d like to take a moment to add my small coda of personal outrage, as the father of an African-American son ... who was also harassed by the Yale police while a student at Yale College. What happened to our son wasn’t as serious as what happened to Blow’s -- no gun was pointed his way -- but the echoes are painful nevertheless.

The events occurred during the summer of 2007, when “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull” was filming at Yale. Our son was an extra in the film, and, following instructions from the producers, arrived on the set with no personal belongings. After the second day of filming, he was entering one of the residential colleges to visit a friend. A Yale police officer stopped him and questioned him. He told the officer that he was a Yale student, but of course he was carrying no identification. Up to this point, it’s fair to say that the officer had done most things right. (We’ll get to the “most” in a moment.)

Our son told the officer his name, which residential college he was in, and what his mobile phone number was. He explained why he was not carrying any identification. The officer openly disbelieved him -- but that wasn’t the end of the story.

At this point, the obvious course for the officer to follow would have been to check and determine whether a student of that name was in the college our son identified, and to either ask the master of the college or look at his photograph. The officer did neither.

Instead, the officer, a couple of days later, called the mobile phone number, evidently to get further information. As it happened, our son was in Paris, where he was preparing for a summer of study abroad. The officer asked if he could come in. He answered that he was in Paris. The officer was openly incredulous, demanding to know how it was that his phone worked abroad. Evidently, an international calling plan was somehow impossible to imagine.

My wife had gone to Paris with our son to help him get settled. At that point, she got on the phone and gave the officer a piece of her mind. I was in San Francisco, on a book tour. When I heard the story, I called the officer’s supervisor, and then had a conversation with the supervisor’s supervisor. Later, I spoke to the master of our son’s residential college, and received assurances from the office of the secretary of the university, who supervises the Yale police, that there would be no record of any kind of the encounter -- no bad mark, that is, on our son’s name.

At this point a reader might reasonably ask what makes my wife and myself think race had anything to do with our son being stopped. Fair question -- as long as you are willing to imagine that every young person who tries to enter a Yale residential college during the summer is stopped by the campus police and asked for identification.

In fact, that wasn’t even our son’s only run-in with authority at Yale. Once, leaving the bookstore, he set off an alarm, because he had in his backpack a book he’d bought there earlier. He was stopped by store security. It was entirely proper for store security to stop him -- except that he, and I too, have seen literally scores of white students set off the alarm and be ignored, or waved through without questions being asked.

Our son has gone on and prospered. We’d thought these incidents in the past. But Charles Blow’s story of his own son’s far more serious mistreatment reminded us afresh of the pain and worry.

Critics of Blow’s tale have asked how he knows race was involved, or why he didn’t mention that the officer who stopped his son is black, or whether he was asserting in his column that his son should not have been stopped because he’s the educated son of professional parents. This sort of nitpicking misses the larger point. Young black men remain objects of suspicion. That’s the simple fact of the matter. Argue if you like about the reasons, but there’s no escaping the underlying reality.

I won’t deny that policing is more art than science, and that those who do that difficult work often don’t get the credit and support that they deserve. But police officers are trapped in the same web of racial history and complexity as everyone else, and as long as the web survives, these incidents will continue to arise.

As a parent you do what you can to teach and train, you provide an education, you launch your children on what you hope will be a successful and ethical life. But the moments of interaction between black men and the police remain always fraught, and no demonstrations or television specials or reassurances from college administrators are going to change that any time soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Stephen L Carter at scarter01@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net