It was his first day on the job. A 12-year-old kid with a newspaper route, that rite of passage for so many American boys and girls. Uriah Sharp gathered the pile of newspapers he was to deliver and set out with his mother and older brother to their assigned neighborhood of Upper Arlington, Ohio, an affluent Columbus suburb.
That’s where Sharp, a young African-American boy excited to earn a little money, instead encountered a lesson far more enduring than the value of hard work: the insidious persistence of American racism. Sharp had only delivered a few papers before police descended on him and his mother. The police had been summoned by a woman who called 911 because of the two “suspicious” African-Americans she saw approaching houses in her heavily white suburb. (Less than 1 percent of Upper Arlington residents are African-American, according to the 2010 census.)
Last week’s incident in Upper Arlington comes as just the latest entry in a too-long list of white Americans who have called the 911 emergency service on their black neighbors for doing nothing illegal at all, including: hanging out in a Philadelphia Starbucks, sleeping in a dorm common room at Yale, entering their rented Airbnb in California and grilling out in an Oakland park.
These are just the high-profile instances from the last three months. But as a former 911 dispatcher recently wrote in Vox ― and as far too many people of color know all too well ― white Americans make racist calls to 911 on a daily basis, using the emergency service as a personal hotline to vent their paranoid fantasies while imperiling the lives of African-Americans and other persons of color.
These incidents provide a particularly cruel reminder of how easily a system designed to ensure the public’s safety ― which for many has been a life-saving advance ― can become just another tool of racist violence.
Perhaps that use shouldn’t be surprising given the origin story of 911. Created 50 years ago this year, the national emergency system grew out of President Lyndon Johnson’s 1967 Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice, a group Johnson tasked with solving “the problems of crime in our nation,” he explained.
“911’s ease and accessibility permitted far darker abuses than just an overworked police force.”
With a rising national crime rate in the late 1960s, many Americans felt the urgency of that work. But perceptions of crime, especially for white Americans, were also shaped by the societal changes underway, including the anti-Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement. “Some have become suspicious of those they conceive to be responsible for crime,” the commission’s report noted, including, “Negroes” and “demonstrators.” To tackle the crime problem, the commission called for the creation of a “single, uniform police number” Americans could call in emergencies.
“Need Help? 911 Will Be Magic Number,” a Chicago Tribune headline enthused as the first 911 systems were released in early 1968. From the start, though, Americans tended to misuse the emergency service. A New York Times story in 1969 found people called 911 to report their heat wasn’t working, ask about the city’s parking rules, and, in one case, inquire how to get a divorce. The emergency number “has destroyed what might be called an inhibition barrier,” a New York City official complained at the time. “People call 911 on the slightest pretext.” Nonemergencies made up about 60 percent of the calls the department received that year.
As 911 services slowly expanded across the nation — it took until 2000 for more than 90 percent of Americans to have access to the emergency system — different jurisdictions passed laws against improper calls to the service. Prank calls, for example, are illegal in most places. But laws vary by state for other abuses, including making false reports or using the service to harass others (such as calling 911 to send firetrucks to an ex-girlfriend’s home when it’s not in flames).
Officials have been hesitant to prosecute such infractions, however, because of the fear that cracking down on the misuse of 911 will discourage legitimate calls, particularly of those from marginalized groups or victims of domestic violence.
“When white Americans feel entitled to regularly call in their racist suspicions to 911, the results can be no less than disastrous.”
Yet that broad tolerance for its misuse has allowed 911 to be used to terrorize African-Americans. In a nation where far too many people associate blackness with criminality and danger, black people live under heightened suspicion as they go about their daily lives, especially in majority-white settings.
That’s an overwhelming reality in itself. But when white Americans feel entitled to regularly call in their racist suspicions to 911, the results can be no less than disastrous. At worst, such calls, as far too many stories of late make clear, can lead to deadly ends, no matter the innocence of those involved. At best, it means that African-Americans live under constant surveillance, harassment and intimidation brought about, in part, by a simple three-digit phone call.
In recent years, Americans have begun to understand how systemic police brutality endangers the lives of black people in the U.S. But less recognized is how the casual racism of everyday Americans often initiates those deadly police responses.
When 911 launched 50 years ago, some authorities warned that the system’s convenience could cause clogged phone lines and unnecessary police action. But 911’s ease and accessibility permitted far darker abuses than just an overworked police force. It provided a direct line for white racists, often anonymously and with rare penalty, to activate law enforcement against their black neighbors. Among the instruments of white privilege, 911 now must surely be included.
Neil J. Young is a historian and the author of We Gather Together: The Religious Right and the Problem of Interfaith Politics. He hosts the history podcast “Past Present.”