The Sunday Magazine

Michael's essay: Assumptions made about black people can be harmful, even deadly

"We make assumptions about black Americans and Canadians that would never occur to us if they were white."

Some years ago, a friend of mine was moving a set of speakers into his Montreal apartment. A colleague who had sold him the speakers was helping him. A police car pulled up and began to question the two young men about what they were doing with the speakers.

Now, it is not the usual custom among burglars to move furniture into an apartment. The cops asked some questions and, satisfied no crime was being committed, drove away.

My friend and his colleague are both black.

We've all heard the stories. The doctor driving his Mercedes through a rich part of town is pulled over by the police. It's called Driving While Black. Or the woman in the Toronto department store being shadowed by the security guy; it's called Shopping While Black.

Det. Anthony Mannuzza, left, and Police Officer Robert Martin simulate a street stop during a training session on June 20, 2012 at the New York Police Department's (NYPD) training facility in Rodman's Neck, in the Queens borough of New York. (The Associated Press)

In Toronto, young black men are 17 times more likely than young white men to be stopped by police and questioned. It's called carding. In New York, it's called stop and frisk. Research has shown the practice has little impact on crime reduction. It is routine in the United States, but it is important to realize it happens in Canada as well. The vital difference is that in the US, the encounter could result in the black person being shot.

Until recently these engagements with police have happened in the shadows, but with the advent of smartphone cameras, the latest incidents have become national news. The most recent involves a Yale student named Lolade Sionbola, a graduate student in African studies. While working on some essays and tests, she fell asleep in the dorm lounge. Another woman called police, saying she wasn't allowed to sleep in the lounge. After showing the cops her apartment key and ID, the matter was dropped. She later said she feared for her  life.

Bob Marley's Toronto granddaughter alleges racial profiling while leaving an Airbnb

6 years ago
Duration 4:16
Donisha Prendergast and four friends were detained after a white neighbour reported her for suspected burglary.

In Rialto, California, three black people were loading suitcases into their car after staying at an Airbnb. A neighbour called the cops, thinking the three were burglars. They were questioned while a police helicopter hovered overhead. Nothing more was done.

The white owner of a golf club in Pennsylvania called the cops because a group of black women was playing too slowly.

And of course the notorious Starbucks case in Philadelphia, where two African Americans waiting to meet a friend for a business meeting were questioned and handcuffed by police after the Starbucks employee called them. The two men spent hours jail before they were released. One of the men said he feared for his life.

A viral video captured the arrest of Rashon Nelson, left, and Donte Robinson, right, in a Starbucks coffee shop in Philadelphia. It has since galvanized people around the country who saw the incident as modern-day racism. (Jacqueline Larma/Associated Press)

What these three incidents and many others all have in common, is the way we make assumptions about young black men and women. See a young black man wandering through a clothing store and security people make an assumption that he might be a shoplifter. If a cop sees a young black driving a luxury car, there is an assumption made that he might have stolen it.

We make assumptions about black Americans and Canadians that would never occur to us if they were white.

Parents and children gathered in Saskatoon on March 15 calling for an end to police carding and racial profiling. (CBC)

I plead guilty to doing the same thing. In the Sixties, I lived on a street in Washington that was largely black.

Coming home late one night from a political meeting, I noticed three young black men walking behind me. I quickened my step and in that moment, consciously or not, made an assumption that they could do me harm.

Nothing, of course, happened.

It is hard for white parents to comprehend the deep-rooted concerns of black parents, as their children roam the world. Most white parents don't have to give their children "the talk"; a detailed explanation of what to do when stopped by police. First rule: Be polite. They don't have to worry that if their young sons interact with the cops over pot or speeding, that things could escalate. And think about the impact of a young black high school student in this country, watching the videos of how some blacks are treated.

We all make assumptions about people every day of our lives. Most are anodyne, frivolous even. But sometimes, assumptions can bring a world of hurt to others when we see, not the human being, but the stereotype.