Friday, July 26, 2013

George Zimmerman Verdict, Racial Profiling, and an Incident in the Life of an African American Male Librarian

Like many other African American males, I was not stunned by the George Zimmerman "not guilty" verdict. Physical evidence supported Mr. Zimmerman's claim of self-defense. Stereotypes about the criminality and extreme violence of young African American men strengthened the "truth" of Mr. Zimmerman's story.  Legally, it does not seem to matter that Trayvon Martin may have been "standing his ground" against a stranger who followed him on a dark, rainy night. Armed with a hoodie, a bag of Skittles and a soft drink, Trayvon Martin was deemed a physical threat that had to put down.

This is the image, the stereotype that every African American male librarian must contend with, whether or not they they admit it. In the aftermath of the verdict, millions of African American parents struggled to tell their sons that they could be murdered just for walking down a street and that the law may hold these young boys practically responsible for their own deaths. Unfortunately, this is part of older, broader conversations for many of these parents: if a police man stops you, do not talk back--even if the officer violates your civil rights, have both hands in plain view, do not give law enforcement officers any reason to shoot you and beat you down like a wild animal". And now this advice must be extended to neighborhood watch crews and other civilian "protectors".

So what does this have to do with me? I'm a librarian, the most non-threatening species on the planet, right? I'm old. I wear glasses. I don't look like a thug.

But that did not stop a White male law officer from rigorously questioning and ticketing me for littering in Westland, Michigan about 3 years ago. In that part of the world, littering is a misdemeanor. I paid a fine, but I still have a criminal record. This is the same officer who allowed many speeding non-African Americans off with warning. I assume he wanted to show me HE was the boss because I asked him if he were profiling me. He responded that he was tired of African Americans asking him that and those the ticket. Because it was a misdemeanor, I had to make a court appearance. I  pleaded "guilty" because it was my word against his. And I knew my words would mean almost nothing against his.

The littering incident occurred within yards of my workplace--a library. The site was so covered with litter, I wondered how many times people were actually fined for the offense. There I was. Looking  like Steve Urkel from Family Matters, while the officer checked my background for previous offenses. Not finding any, he decided a littering charge was in order.  To be honest, I was guilty of throwing a candy wrapper among the other trash near the library. If I had listened to the above advice, I may have gotten away with a warning.

But I doubt it.

The officer was most likely making his "quota" and my righteous indignation allowed him to do just that.

My point to this story is simple. Even a homely librarian like myself isn't exempted from the negative stereotypes that contributed to Trayvon Martin's death.  I wonder how many other African American male librarians how gone through racially informed situations but do not share their stories because they do not want to seem bitter and hostile.

I wonder.


  1. Very interesting post. I enjoyed it! I have had experiences similar to this myself as a young African-American female librarian. Words can't describe how frustrating it is to want to address and discuss this issue but avoid doing so because of fear of how others may perceive me.

  2. I learned when I was young to keep my hands visible when I am in stores. I exaggerate my movements if I MUST take something from my purse or bag so it's clear (I hope) that I'm not shoplifting. I keep my distance from merchandise shelves, even when I want to examine something. If I pick something up, I make bigger-than-needed movements in putting it back. Someone once asked me how/why I learned this. It came from being frequently followed in stores and even being accused of shoplifting because I left a dressing room with fewer hangers than I took in. (I had the item in my hand ready to purchase and had "foolishly" left the hanger behind because I didn't want it.) That was when I was much younger. Now I'm gray-haired and matronly -- old enough to be a grandma. But I still do those things and probably always will.

  3. Information is power. To be informed is powerful. We as black males are constantly misinformed which impact our ability to win against the stereotypes place in our paths. I am currently a graduate with a Master's degree in library science and it was not until I increased my mental capacity to read more, did I feel an inkling of strength to stand up against the social impurities I face daily. "George", the irony of the name, considering the name provided to black service men on the train. The connection to freedom, the concealment of racism, the feeling to do more than our ancestors, compiled with limitations presented because we want to survive in this world is enough to keep the strongest man quiet. Great post Jonnie Blunt. Thank you for provoking me to think further.