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NYT Advice-Seeker Wonders If It’s Racist to Call Police on Black Man Seen Breaking Into Cars

NYT Advice-Seeker Wonders If It’s Racist to Call Police on Black Man Seen Breaking Into Cars

“I sincerely hope the young man wasn’t apprehended but instead was just scared off and won’t lurk around my home again.”

An anguished advice-seeker wrote in to The New York Times Magazine’s “The Ethicist” column, in which perplexed progressives often call on British-Ghanaian cultural theorist Kwame Anthony Appiah to solve their moral quandaries, and wondered if it was racist to have called authorities after witnessing a “young black male” breaking into a neighbors’ car.

“Recently, I witnessed a young black male cut across my yard, duck between my neighbors’ two cars and try the doors of both, before ‘breaking’ into the unlocked one. I opened my back door and yelled, ‘I see you getting into that car!’ He took off running. I called the police and then posted to the (admittedly sometimes racially charged) Nextdoor app, in the hopes that my neighbors would check the locks on their cars and homes,” the advice-seeker wrote in a letter published Tuesday.

The letter-writer described feeling a “pang of guilt for calling the police” and being unable “to stop thinking about it, given the tragic way things too often end between police and people of color.” The nameless Missouri-based advice-seeker said they’d “rather have my car broken into than have a person’s life ruined by my 911 call,” remarking they weren’t even sure “if it’s a crime to open someone’s unlocked vehicle.”

“I sincerely hope the young man wasn’t apprehended but instead was just scared off and won’t lurk around my home again,” the advice-seeker wrote. “But what if he had been arrested? I also shudder to think how many young black men vaguely matching his description were harassed by officers after my call.”

“Did I do the right thing by calling the police?” they asked, before pondering whether they’d behaved like “BBQ Becky — the white woman in California who called the police on a group of black people having a barbecue?”

Appiah’s response was doubly reassuring – he averred that the advice-seeker was right to call the police and also right to feel anxious that “police might overreact to your call” and mistreat innocent black men. The New York University professor focused largely on the racial implications at hand.

“In recent years, the theft of firearms, often from vehicles, has risen sharply where you live. Your state also has the highest rate of black homicide victims in the country (and most violent crimes are indeed intraracial). So yes, I’d say you did the right thing,” he said.

Citing a 2015 survey conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago that found nearly half of African-Americans reported being treated badly by police officers because of their race, Appiah denounced “Unjust policing” as wrong and “self-undermining.”

“One problem caused by the flagrant abuses of police authority we see reported in the media — the sort of events that generated the Black Lives Matter movement — is that they weaken community support for the police, and such support is essential to successful policing,” he said. “It’s possible to understand why so many police officers appear to be willing to turn a blind eye to misconduct by their fellows (solidarity develops naturally among people who face danger together), but the abuse of police authority makes their jobs harder. They’d be better off if they did more to root it out.”

Despite the many purported injustices perpetrated by law enforcement, Appiah ultimately concluded that the advice-seeker was right to call police – with some caveats.

“Still, it’s bad enough that black men have a reason to worry that any arrest might go wrong. Your hesitance about involving law enforcement points to a larger crisis of trust, one undergirded by worrying racial disparities throughout the criminal-justice system,” he said. “The best response, however, isn’t to turn a blind eye to property crimes. It’s to get involved in campaigns to reform policing and prosecution.”

Critics of progressivism argue that its adherents’ identity politics-mindset is negatively affecting conversations about race. Many conservatives are frustrated with what they view as progressives’ fixation on microaggressions and an intolerance for views that diverge from politically correct orthodoxy. In addition, some argue that an insistence on viewing every facet of culture through an identity politics lens blinds progressives to facts that explain many so-called racial “injustices.”

Cover image: White guilt (Screen grab)

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