In recent years, controversies over black men and women being singled out for police harassment in everyday situations have become common — especially after the arrest a year ago of two men at a Philadelphia Starbucks for not making a purchase while waiting to meet with a business contact. Now, the issue has erupted at Columbia University, where a video shows a black student being manhandled by campus security in what has been described as a racial profiling incident on April 11. The story has made national headlines and sparked protests on the campus. But is this a case of insidious racism or of misguided outrage?
The student, 23-year-old senior Alexander McNab, was headed to a free canteen at a student center at Barnard, the undergraduate women’s college, shortly after 11 p.m. He walked through the gate without showing his student ID; when a public safety officer followed him and asked for his ID, he refused to comply. Several more officers arrived, and in the ensuing dispute McNab ended up being physically restrained and pinned against a countertop. Eventually, he produced his ID and was released — but not before a Barnard student shocked by a scene that she found “reminiscent of police brutality” had filmed the confrontation.
The next day, Columbia students demonstrating in response to the incident chanted expletive-laced slogans against “racist police.” Three days later, Barnard president Sian Leah Beilock issued a statement apologizing to McNab and calling for “conversations about race, racial bias, and racial profiling.” Six officers involved in the incident are now on administrative leave pending an investigation.
But was McNab, a writer for the Columbia Spectator who has focused on racial issues in his work, targeted because of his race as he claims — or was he refusing to follow common rules?
Barnard policy requires anyone entering college buildings after 11 p.m. to show an ID. However, McNab claims that it’s enforced inconsistently and that black students, in particular, are singled out. He says his noncompliance stemmed from being fed up with being racially profiled.
Some white Columbia students, mostly women, say they have not always had their IDs checked after hours. Yet others say the policy is universally enforced, without regard to race or gender.
Among those who believe the incident has been overblown is Coleman Hughes, a black Columbia undergraduate who has written critically about progressive ideology on race. Writing in the online magazine Quillette, Hughes accuses Columbia officials of cowardice for suspending the public safety officers and treating the incident as racist. He argues that the ID policy is reasonable, especially on an all-female campus in an urban area, and that allowing people to defy it would be tantamount to abandoning it.
Hughes’ article also points out that McNab has given contradictory statements: In the video of the incident, he claims he didn’t know about the ID policy; in a Columbia Spectator interview, he says he knew about it but was frustrated with racially biased enforcement.
We can hope that Barnard’s investigation will be fair and based on facts rather than politics — and that, in the meantime, Columbia’s “conversation” about race will make room for voices like Hughes’.
Few would deny that African-Americans, especially males, are often singled out for suspicion; while these patterns reflect not only racial prejudice but also actual crime demographics, there is no question that such treatment is demeaning and breeds understandable resentment. Finding solutions is not easy. But no one is helped by zealotry that sees racism in every interaction and, in effect, demands special treatment rather than equality.
Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.