This upsetting story came to my attention. It’s another example of an all-too-common pattern: Lolade Siyonbola, a black graduate student at Yale, was detained, hassled and humiliated by police after a white student found her asleep in a dorm common area, told her she wasn’t supposed to be there, then called the cops.
Now, according to the Yale Daily News and other outlets, I’m hearing to my shock that the white student in question was Sarah Braasch, who’s written several guest posts for Daylight Atheism in the past. (Siyonbola posted videos of the whole confrontation on Facebook.)
To be clear, I absolutely don’t condone calling the police on a peaceful, law-abiding person of color, especially not because their mere presence makes a white person feel threatened. Sarah is a personal acquaintance and a friend of mine, but what she did in this situation was a grievous moral error, and I’m not defending it. What makes it worse is that, according to the Yale Daily News story and Siyonbola’s account, this isn’t the first confrontation of this kind that she’s instigated.
This is a pattern of prejudice that’s still prevalent in our society. There are countless stories of white people summoning the police to harass and arrest people of color who were peacefully shopping, or driving, or sitting in a Starbucks, or sitting in their own car and reading, or waiting for a bus, or jogging, or walking, or touring a college campus, or renting a house, or almost any other mundane activity. And while this particular story ended with no physical harm done, others like it ended violently and tragically: Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, and too many others.
For this reason, I believe that when a person of color is involved, all white people have a moral duty to treat the police as an absolute last resort, ideally reserved for cases of imminent and serious danger. Throughout American history, the police have been de facto enforcers of white supremacy, coming to hassle and bully minorities on the whim of a white person. (That was evident in this story – the Yale police should have just asked Siyonbola whether she was a student, got a yes and then left, rather than interrogating her as a presumptive intruder.) All too often, they turn out to be belligerent and trigger-happy and escalate minor matters rather than resolving them.
America’s history of racism, in its many manifestations, is something that all atheists and humanists need to be more aware of. We need to learn about and familiarize ourselves with the deep-rooted problems that civil-rights movements like Black Lives Matter arose to combat: housing segregation, racially biased drug laws and mass incarceration, police brutality and militarized over-policing, the whitewashing of the Confederacy, and more. Until we’re closer to true equality, we have to remind ourselves of this on a regular basis.
I’ve criticized big-name atheists for promoting racist pseudoscience, written about how pervasive implicit bias is, and stressed the importance of making a space for people of color in the secular community specifically. But, clearly, we have a lot of work left to do.
I’m not going to delete any of Sarah’s guest posts, unless she asks me to (which would be her right to do, since the copyright remains with her). Her views are hers and don’t necessarily represent mine. For instance, she’s written about her support for banning the burqa, which is a view I don’t agree with, but I also don’t think it’s completely outside the bounds of discussion.
I welcome feedback and discussion, but I’ll be monitoring the comments and will delete any that are threatening, sexist or gratuitously abusive. I’ve closed the comments on one of her earlier guest posts due to a flood of comments of this type.