- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
When are degrees from Harvard, Yale and Oxford not enough to prove that you like books? When you are also black, like me.
That was the first lesson I learned a few days ago when I was the victim of racial profiling at the law school where I teach.
My faculty photo identification was not enough for the security officer guarding the entrance to the library. He needed more proof that I belonged in the building. So he pulled me aside while he checked an electronic directory to verify that I was in fact the person my university-issued pass said I was.
Maybe he was right to worry. After all, what else but mischief would bring a black man to a library on a sunny Saturday afternoon?
The second lesson I learned that day is even more important than the first: my responsibilities as a law professor extend well beyond the classroom. I owe a fiduciary duty of care to our students.
I am more than just a law professor. I am a law professor at an institution whose stated mission is to stand for social justice, to fight for fairness, and to advocate for equality. I believe deeply in that mission. Desire and duty both compel me to defend our institutional mission when I see it come under fire—especially when something presents a menace to our students.
My responsibility to our students is to help make our community the most supportive, encouraging and fulfilling it can be. That means I must do all I can to protect our students from the very kind of incident that occurred to me. But the job is not mine alone. It is the task of everyone in our community.
The cost of racial profiling may not appear on a balance sheet but it is a high price to pay. It creates a deficit in our constitutional values and undermines the fundamental rights of due process and innocence before guilt. Worse still, it threatens to turn those rights into the very wrongs the Constitution aspires to prevent.
It may seem silly for me to turn the library incident into an incident at all, and maybe even sillier for me to take offense at it. Some people endure far more sinister forms of racial profiling that carry consequences much more severe than having to wait an extra minute or two to enter a library.
Perhaps I should accept the reality of multiple layers of precautionary measures—like double-checking photo identification even if the only cause for concern is skin color—both for my own protection and for the safety of others.
Or perhaps my life of privilege has given me such an inflated sense of self-importance that the only victim here was my ego.
But perhaps not.
Maybe something as trivial as racial profiling in a library is just the kind of incident that can prompt meaningful reflection about what we need to do to finally right the wrongs that continue to dot the landscape of America. Because if race raises a red flag when a faculty member wants to enter the library at one of America’s leading universities, then we may not have come as far as we think.
All of which leads me to the third lesson I learned from the library incident: a black person is first and always black. Not a person. And that is the greatest source of shame and sorrow in this great land—a land that could be even greater.
Time alone cannot heal the deep wounds that have left scars across American history. Let us therefore do more than hope for a better America. Let us make it so, each of us beginning in our own community.