Smartphone videos have inundated social media recently with depictions of subtle, and not so subtle, acts of racism and xenophobia. The videos, often cringeworthy, give viewers an idea of the depths of prejudice some people endure across the country. For the victims, filming the perpetrators has become a defense mechanism to not only defend themselves but to establish proof of bias.
The cell-filming-and-posting trend is not new, and it might have derived from video depictions of police brutality nationwide that led to the Black Lives Matter movement. Most recently, the practice has developed into a weapon to expose deep prejudice apparently held by some everyday Americans.
Among the recent videos is one that surfaced on Twitter depicting an episode on Long Island. On a leafy street in Deer Park, a white man was filmed shouting out the window of his car to a man in an adjacent vehicle. The ranter repeatedly uses a racial epithet to refer to the other man.
Suffolk County District Attorney Tim Sini said his office did not receive a complaint about the video, but reviewed it. Despite the offensive language, he said criminal charges could not be filed because the man is protected by the First Amendment. But Sini added, “This is a stark reminder that racism is alive and well in Suffolk County.”
In another instance, a Long Island Rail Road rider shouted expletives and racial slurs at an African-American woman in April, calling her a “monkey.” He pleaded guilty July 12 to aggravated harassment and disorderly conduct.
In May, in an example of anti-immigrant sentiment, a lawyer was caught on video in a Manhattan deli making a racist rant about the Spanish-speaking staff. He later made the statement, “I am not a racist.”
The list goes on.
A common trend in many of these videos is white people calling 911 on people of color. In a Starbucks in Philadelphia, for example, police were called on two men for seemingly no other reason than the color of their skin. A woman called the police on a black family grilling in a park in Oakland. A woman labeled “Permit Patty” called 911 on an 8-year-old black girl who was selling water bottles without a permit in San Francisco.
The 911 cases are particularly complex, as people of color tend to have a tense relationship with the police. When white Americans needlessly call 911 in these situations, it exacerbates the problem.
The phenomenon is not all negative, as it makes us more aware of underlying racism. While many people of color have been subjected to racial profiling, the ubiquity of cellphone cameras has made it easier to document and share images of the confrontations in real time. Some say the vitriolic ascension of President Donald Trump seems to have validated some of the racist behavior captured on video, and the filming is a public-shaming backlash.
The clips are also useful in that they show racism is not just the purview of neo-Nazis, but seemingly ordinary people.
Isobel van Hagen is an intern with Newsday Opinion.