Tuesday, August 9, 2011

the myth of the color-blind county

Music Man, Fenton & Ellsworth
Fenton Street in downtown Silver Spring in 2009.

Montgomery County police officer Robert Carter doesn't want you to worry about racial profiling if a proposed teen curfew is enacted, because like Stephen Colbert, our cops don't see race:

"I understand that some cops of yesteryear judged a “book by its cover.” The good news is today’s Montgomery County police are part of one of the first generations of Americans to have grown up “color blind,” or for that matter, blind to all bias. They’ll judge these kids based on something else, something they have learned quickly on this job."

Though I'm not convinced that the curfew represents a "war on black teenagers," as Post columnist Courtland Milloy describes it, I cannot believe that Montgomery's police are all "color-blind," even the younger officers who like me grew up around diversity. After all, a curfew in Frederick County was struck down because police were using it to target black kids. As a black male, my experiences with racial profiling tell me I should be skeptical of statements like Officer Carter's that our cops can serve without ever displaying bias.

After all, prejudice is still present even in liberal Montgomery County, even if it shows up in subtle ways: the community meetings where neighbors equate low-income people with drug dealers or use coded language like "undesirables." Or the diner that kicks a black gay couple out for embracing in public.

Some would argue that class, not race is the biggest divider in today's Montgomery, especially with a black County Executive and three minority Councilmembers. But we're still far from being a color-blind society. At Saturday's community roundtable on youth issues, I talked to Joey, who lives in Four Corners and said he'd support a curfew. He won't take his family to Silver Spring at night because of "thug-looking kids" hanging out there. "And I'm not just talking about black and Latino kids," he quickly added. If we don't see race, is that statement necessary?

For years, Montgomery County has been proud of its [progressive politics. Now that we're a majority-minority jurisdiction, we actually have to show our progressive values. After all, it's easy to be open-minded when the only minorities you see are the token black family on your cul-de-sac. It's harder when your kids go to a school that's 25% white and the signs in your neighborhood are all in Amharic or Spanish.

Some people are comfortable with that. The rest struggle each day to negotiate a world that doesn't look like it did just twenty years ago, unsure how to respond. Usually, they go with fear. And that can make even the most staunch liberal consider things normally offensive to their principles. Like trusting that police can pick out "bad" kids on a busy downtown street, even before anyone's done anything illegal, and not wrongfully accuse someone based on vaguely-defined characteristics.

The perennial debate over youth behavior and crime in Silver Spring has been going on for years. It's a reflection of how committed people are to ensuring that this community, once lost to disinvestment and urban decay, can remain vibrant and safe. Yet the discussion rarely touches on the elephant in the very diverse room and, as a result, can never be fully resolved.


Robert said...

Officer Carter's statement is simply unbelievable.

He says "The good news is today’s Montgomery County police are part of one of the first generations of Americans to have grown up “color blind,” or for that matter, blind to all bias." I wish it were so, but the current generation is not color blind or blind to all bias. And our police force should know that more than anyone since they have to deal with hate crimes, the majority of which are probably committed by young people.

Things have changed a lot since the Civil Rights Act, but we are not yet perfect. The Montgomery County Police may be better than most, and they may try to be bias free, but they aren't perfect yet either.

The curfew is an open invitation to selective enforcement and improper policing.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that misguided comment truly exposes the department as being completely delusional. They are must be completely oblivious to the formation of white hate groups that have been increasing omnipresent throughout the country. While Montgomery County can effectively be considered a very progressive bastion surrounded by an army of red (most of Maryland, outside the major urban areas, vote republican) it is not impervious to transgressions of such groups.

Mortis Olaf said...

I'm pretty sure Moco's police represent a sizable portion of the area's bigots. They become police so they can get away with it.

Elysian said...

Is the curfew the only issue this blog is going to report on from now on?

Woody Brosnan said...

Woody brosnan wrote,

Of course we still live with racism and bigotry. But in 1958, a poll showed that 94 per cent of whites did not believe blacks and whites should be allowed to marry. My generation turned the tide on civil rights and our struggle won't be over until everyone is allowed to marry whoever they want and no one faces discrimination in hiring.But Lt. Carter is right in asserting that his "generation" was not raised to believe in bigotry as in past generations. Can anyone be assured that there will never be an incident of racial profiling? No. But there are review procedures in place. The difference between now and the 60's is that racism does not have the official sanction of law. And if curfew laws are so subject to racism, why were they passed in PG County and DC and why was one proposed by the African-American who is our county executive?

retgroclk said...

whentialThe police are experienced in judging people who may or may not be suspects. There are certain things that people who are inclined to vandalize, rob or commit a crime do- certain quirks and subtle behavior.
It is not 100 accurate.
remember the DC Snipers-- profiling showed them to be a couple of long haired rednecks in their 20's.
But overall most of our police department are not racicist and they know what they are doing.

bob Fustero

Dan Reed said...


I agree. I generally feel that MoCo police are well-intentioned and do a good job - just look at our falling crime rates. But I wish Officer Carter had worked harder in his Post editorial to explain how his department seeks to eliminate unfair bias, especially by race. Without that, I don't feel comfortable giving them the leeway to find potential "suspects" that a curfew would provide.

Anonymous said...

Pollyanna-ish? Maybe. Bigoted? C'mon Olaf, internet trolls convince no one.
We have come incredibly far in race relations. There is more improvement to be made. In the end I suspect that we never achieve perfect colorblindness because of a natural human tendency to be a bit tribal.
But perfection isn't necessary for us to achieve great things.

Woody Brosnan said...

woody brosnan wrote,
Why don't you write a column about this little incident which shows the concern about gangs is not limited just to Silver Spring.


Dan Reed said...


See those comments underneath the video with the N-word on them? Now, tell me racism doesn't exist anymore.

Anyway, there's no evidence that this was a gang-related incident and, frankly, I doubt gang members are involved in stealing candy bars from a 7-Eleven.

Woody Brosnan said...

woody brosnan wrote,
I never said racism does not exist anymore. Stop putting words into people's mouth. What I said is that government-sponsored, government-condoned, and government-tolerated racism rarely exists anymore and racism is not condoned by public officials in Montgomery County.

As for whether it's gang related or not, I don't know what you call it when two dozen people agree to meet up and rob a store but it sure sounds like a gang to me.

Dan Reed said...

Until we find out that MS-13 is stealing Hershey bars from 7-Eleven, we can't call this group of kids a "gang." Not to say that what they did isn't wrong, and that they shouldn't be dealt with appropriately. But there are different circumstances that led to this incident than with a gang-related stabbing and different reasons why a kid would get involved in a "flash robbery" or a gang. We shouldn't lump these two together. (Nor should we lump all of the kids who aren't doing anything at all with the "flash robbers" and gangbangers, but of course, supporters of the curfew are doing just that. Good job.)