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What Tahj Blow's Police Encounter Reveals About Student Activism in the #Blacklivesmatter Movement

Even for students who have overcome statistics, escaped the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline," and ascended into the most elite educational settings, the most basic messaging of this system for enforcing identity still resonates, if only through brief, but highly symbolic encounters.
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It has happened more than once. I am stopped in the university dining hall and asked if I will be bringing out more chicken. The speaker, my classmate, has failed to recognize that I am not wearing a uniform, and takes a moment to realize that I am not a member of the dining hall staff, but a member of the student body. In that time, I have to decide: should I be upset, or let it roll off my back? There is no reason to be offended by the error. I was not called a racial epithet; I was simply labeled as a member of the dining hall staff. Yet, in my gut, I feel it would not have happened but for the fact that I am a black student in an elite university. The mistake tells me what my classmate expects to accompany my complexion, both in terms of educational and employment status, as if I were a member of a caste.

When I read about Tahj Blow's encounter with a police officer on the campus where I attend school, it became clear to me that instances of profiling youth of color, at school and when interacting with police, are interconnected. Tahj, a sophomore college student was detained at gunpoint while he was on his way home from the library. The officer later explained that he fit the profile of a suspected burglar in the area. Yet, for many, there was that gut-feeling: he would not have been singled-out and treated in this manner, but for the fact that he was black.

Like many students of color, my outrage after the failure to indict the police officers responsible for killing Mike Brown and Eric Garner was personal. As I listened to others moved to protest and speak out, I realized there were a range of experiences animating the anger and disappointment that students felt. Some students spoke of times they had personally been stopped-and-frisked on the street or followed in a department store. For others, the incidents elicited experiences of less extreme race-based profiling, often at school. One student spoke of how classmates always asked if he was on a basketball scholarship, another told a story about how she was advised not to apply to a private college in high school, another described how he was repeatedly asked to show school ID when entering the library. At times in our discussions, I wondered what it was that connected us together. Was #blacklivesmatter becoming an umbrella for any young person who had ever felt discrimination?

As student activism during the past year has highlighted, there is not only a crisis of trust between minorities and the police. There is also a crisis of trust between minorities and schools. At first, I was resistant to the conflation of these many issues. The microaggressions my classmates and I experience in the pristine lawns playing Frisbee, or in the Gothic-decorated dormitories where we live, are simply not the same as the experiences of a black man in Staten Island locked in a choke-hold, begging to be let go as he takes his last breath. The experiences of trauma and violence that mark police brutality are usually not present in encounters on school campuses. We are undoubtedly privileged.

But, for many, extreme examples of racial profiling take meaning within the context of much more subtle, personal experiences of targeting based upon racial or ethnic differences that often occur in school. Often fraught with ambiguity, trust matters tremendously in determining how to interpret these encounters. If previous interactions convince me that race does not influence how a classmate sees me, I may give him or her the benefit of the doubt. But if other interactions have taught me that race often impacts how this person, or others in the school community see and treat me, I am more likely to believe this interaction is a microaggression, or the result of racial bias. When a member of a minority group speaks out about what he perceives as racial bias, the response becomes yet another site in which trust is either built or broken. Is she or he believed? Are the claims of racial bias dismissed as not a real harm? The response becomes a symbolic way for the individual who feels harmed to understand whether or not he is trusted by a community and whether or not he is valued.

Ultimately, there is a difference between questioning the conclusion that someone has in fact been targeted based upon race, and questioning whether he genuinely believes he has been. The latter is more damaging to trust. That is what many schools missed in their responses to the #Blacklivesmatter protests. Student protesters did not necessarily expect our institution's to release an official statement that a jury's failure to indict police officers was because black lives don't matter. What we needed was for the communities we were a part of to genuinely grapple with the fact that we felt that way. Our administrators and professors are not required to take a specific position on the outcome of a particular case, but to take an outspoken position on the fact that their students are hurting.

It may be that Tahj Blow fit the description of the burglar to such an extent that race was truly not the significant factor that led to his stop or to his treatment. But as long as it does not feel that way to Tahj and to his classmates, there will be a crisis of trust and legitimacy -- not just for police, but for schools and all of the institutions that police the identities of young people and communicate to youth whether, and in what ways, we matter.

Profiling is not simply a predisposition to see black youth as criminals, but a predisposition to see them not as students. It is not simply about what black youth are assumed to be, but what we are assumed not to be. Even for students who have overcome statistics, escaped the so-called "school-to-prison pipeline," and ascended into the most elite educational settings, the most basic messaging of this system for enforcing identity still resonates, if only through brief, but highly symbolic encounters.