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Why White Americans Call The Police On Black People In Public Spaces


A Philadelphia Starbucks, a Yale dormitory, a St. Louis clothing store - these are just a few of the places black people have recently been challenged, arrested or asked to leave even though they did not commit any crime. Jason Johnson is politics editor at The Root, and he's a professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University. He's been writing about why white Americans call the police on black people who haven't done anything wrong. Welcome to the program.

JASON JOHNSON: Glad to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Are these sorts of things happening more often? Or do you think we're just more aware of them?

JOHNSON: I think this has always been happening. What's been different is that over the last couple of years there has been sort of a larger number of white Americans who are empathetic and sympathetic to this kind of harassment. And therefore, mainstream press outlets are actually covering it because there's an audience that wants to know now.

SHAPIRO: The specific details of these incidents vary. But describe what they all have in common.

JOHNSON: Oh, what they all have in common is a white person calling the cops on black people for doing nothing. You have a lot of white Americans who basically feel that anyone who is not white is sort of there for their entertainment. So if I don't want them there, I control the space and their bodies. And I'll use the police to do it.

SHAPIRO: But I know we can't read minds. So do you think what's going through the heads of the white people who call the cops on these black people is, I want that person out. Or are those white people so trained to fear people of color that they think there is actually a genuine threat to them when in fact there is none.

JOHNSON: I think it's both. It would be very different if these stories were about someone who was like, hey, I asked that guy what he was doing moving that couch out of the house, and he snarled at me. And I'm like, OK, now I think there's a problem. These people are calling the police first because they think that blacks are inherently dangerous. And they feel that the police are there to work as their personal racism valets and remove black people from the situation.

SHAPIRO: That is a very provocative phrase - personal racism valets. Explain what you mean by that.

JOHNSON: When white people call the police, they know no matter how shaky or inconsistent their story is the police will listen to them first. You look at what just happened in Oakland where this woman called the police on a black family for barbecuing in the park. And another white woman came there and said look. I'm going to stay with this family for two hours because I know full well that when the cops get here this other white woman's story is going to be believed no matter what the black family says. White people know this.

SHAPIRO: We've heard so many reports about fatal encounters where police shoot unarmed black men. How do these less violent confrontations fit into the larger picture of dynamics between police and people of color today?

JOHNSON: The police have a tremendous amount of agency. And they generally choose to escalate or use unnecessary violence when dealing with people of color. You have this instance in Atlanta right now. A 65-year-old grandmother is yanked out of her car by police officers. There is no way that woman could have been a threat to any officer unless she's some sort of ninja. But that's what we see consistently - that this is how cops treat black people.

SHAPIRO: For many years, the message has been if you see something, say something. Do you think that message needs to change and people need to take more responsibility for not calling the cops in the absence of a real and significant threat?

JOHNSON: The role of the police is as law enforcement. They're supposed to be the last resort. You're supposed to ask questions, attempt to communicate and resolve things as a functional citizen. So of course, we shouldn't be calling the police on a regular basis. At the same time, this notion of see something, say something, it can be adjudicated at that point by the police. So look. If I were to call from my home and say, hey, there's a scruffy looking white guy outside. I think he might be a murderer. I doubt the police are going to show up in 15 minutes.


JOHNSON: So it's not about see something, say something. It's what you say you see - how that's perceived as a threat.

SHAPIRO: So what's the solution here?

JOHNSON: Look. What needs to happen is people who make malicious prosecution calls on black people need to be fined. Look. If I pull a fire alarm at a school, and the fire truck has to show up, and it's no fire, I'm going to get a ticket. I'm probably going to have to go to court about it. If you call the police saying, I see a group of black people, and they're jumping up and down and screaming - I don't know if it's Howard's graduation or a riot - and the police show up and say it's Howard's graduation, then that person needs to be ticketed. And I think if people started suffering consequences for this kind of behavior, you would see a drop in these kinds of phone calls.

SHAPIRO: Jason Johnson is a professor of politics and journalism at Morgan State University and politics editor at The Root. Thanks for joining us today.

JOHNSON: Anytime, Ari.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.