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The University Is Not an Oasis: Crime Alert Emails, Campus Policing, and Low Enrollments of Black Students

By Jennifer Scism Ash

Numerous times each semester the campus police at my school, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), circulate mass emails detailing reports of alleged crimes that happened on or near campus. More than often, vague descriptions of bodies and clothing coupled with other details from police reports are included in these messages. While these emails seem to be designed to provide transparency, and while it is the University’s goal to provide a safe work and learning environment for members of the campus community, the descriptions contained within the crime alert emails do not provide clarity about safety issues. Instead, they facilitate the making of an unsafe space for particular students, employees, and community members, especially Black students, faculty, and staff.

Photo by Rommel Canlas / Shutterstock

The descriptions, though not contained in every “crime alert” email, are often from victims or witnesses who call the police for help. What is noticeable about these descriptions is both the frequency at which people of color are reported as perpetrators, and the generic nature of the descriptions. For example, on July 27, 2015 the campus community received an email that contained this description: “The offender, described as a black male in his 30’s, with a dark complexion, wearing a white t-shirt.” Or the email circulated on May 22, 2014 that contained this description: “The offender is described as a black male in his late teens to early 20s, 5-foot-5 to 5-foot-6, 160-170 lbs., with black hair. He was wearing a black T-shirt with a white-and-red logo, dark pants and shoes, and was carrying a dark backpack.” Each time descriptions like these are circulated, Black students, faculty, and staff as well as Black community members in the vicinity are in jeopardy of being accused of crime and harassed by campus police, unlike their white colleagues and peers, who are protected by our identity and numbers at the institution.

Exacerbating this problem is the fact that while UIC boasts a diverse student population, in the fall of 2014 only 7.9% of the undergraduate student population was reported as African American. Additionally, only 8.3% of graduate students and 7.2% of students enrolled in professional programs identified as African American last year. It should also be noted that the number of African American students enrolled at UIC has been on the decline since at least 2009.[1] This problem has recently been publicly addressed by the University of Illinois President Tim Killeen as an embarrassment of sorts for the entire University system including the flagship school at Urbana-Champaign where Black students represented only 4.9% of the student body in 2014. Such low numbers of Black students, combined with small numbers of Black faculty, places UIC’s African American population at high risk of being accused of crime and being targeted by police. In addition, African Americans visiting or living in the surrounding communities are placed at a higher risk of being wrongly accused and harassed by law enforcement.

Research has shown that the public perception of who commits crime is a drastically racialized perception.  Circulating emails with descriptions of generic white bodies does not hold the same racialized power as circulating similar descriptions of Black bodies. If a campus email is disseminated with a generic description of a white woman, chances are I will not be harassed by campus police or reported as suspicious by my peers at UIC – something white students, faculty, and staff take for granted on a regular basis.

While colleges and universities are required by federal law to notify campus communities when certain crimes are reported, the practice of including racial and ethnic descriptions should be discontinued. UIC’s administration and the larger University of Illinois system should also revitalize and create new practices to recruit both Black students and faculty to study and work at our institutions.

The vast majority of UIC’s student population lives in the city of Chicago or surrounding suburbs, and in 2010 32.9% of Chicago’s population identified as African American.[2] It’s true that UIC is more racially and ethnically diverse than many college campuses across the country, but UIC has failed when it comes to the recruitment and retention of Black students. In order to attract more African American students and faculty to UIC, the campus climate needs to be one that takes diversity seriously and is supported by practices that do not place people of color at high risk of social isolation and wrongful criminal accusations.

UIC’s campus climate may seem healthier than other institutions because we have fantastic and diverse student organizations, cultural resource centers representing diverse communities on campus, and institutions like the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, a site that has deep roots in Chicago’s political history and cultural life.  But UIC is far from perfect. Colleagues and friends have shared numerous stories with me regarding the fears and experiences of various campus community members. Stories include Black students who are repeatedly asked to produce their student ID by law enforcement for no apparent reason. Fellow students of mine have been harassed for ID’s especially when entering buildings at night, while I have never been asked to produce my ID, minus a few times while entering the library in the evening – a practice that may seem routine, but also lends to profiling. I have listened to stories about campus police harassing and handcuffing Black teens who are participating in on-campus programming and stories of students who were unfairly questioned for vandalism that occurred in a building they just happened to enter after the incident.

These practices are not unique to my campus and unfortunately we know of numerous cases where campus police officers have harassed, physically assaulted, and even killed Black students, faculty, staff, and community members. In January of 2015, New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow’s son, Tahj, was detained at gunpoint by Yale University campus police when they responded to a witness report that included a generic description of a tall, Black male of college-age wearing a black jacket (language resembling that included in crime alerts emails circulated by UIC police).[3]  Ersula Ore, a Black professor at Arizona State University, was arrested by police officer Stewart Ferrin and charged with assault after she defended herself when he disrespectfully approached her for jaywalking, something most of us do on a regular basis on college campuses across the country. And most recently, Samuel DuBose, a 43-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by University of Cincinnati Police Officer Ray Tensing in a traffic stop. Despite Tensing’s claims that his life was in danger, the video evidence contradicts his story. These are just a few of the most well known incidents from across the country, but we can assume there are hundreds of others.

Earlier this year the University of Minnesota announced that it would limit the usage of racial descriptions in crime alert emails to cases “when there is sufficient detail that would help identify a specific individual or group.”[4] This announcement came after a period of student organizing, including a building takeover, where a student organization called Whose Diversity made several demands. Despite this announcement, the University’s decision to not eliminate the practice altogether ensures that Black students and employees will still be placed in danger every time a description of a Black body is circulated by campus authorities, a point that Whose Diversity emphasized in their response to the University’s decision.

The University is not an oasis. It doesn’t stand alone amidst a vast desert of racism as a beacon of enlightened racial progress, despite our desire to think differently of academia. It is not a place of refuge for all students and faculty at all times. Progress at universities happens in spite of the institutions, not because of them.  Change happens when administrations listen to students’ concerns and when institutions connect with the communities that surround them in meaningful ways.  Crime alert emails that contain racial descriptions, policing practices that routinely harass Black students, employees, and members of the community, as well as many institutions’ failure to recruit and retain Black students and faculty are three different, albeit connected, problems that indicate that the academy is not only complicit in the devaluing of Black lives, but that it actually participates in that devaluing.


 

Jennifer Scism Ash is a graduate student in the Ph.D. program in History and Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She earned a BA in History from Western Carolina University and an MA in U.S. History from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Focusing on African American and women’s history, her research interests are centered on race, gender, and notions of respectability during the second half of the twentieth-century. Before embarking on her journey as a doctoral student, she was a faculty member at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, for nearly six years, and has experience teaching both history and gender and women’s studies courses. Earlier this year, Jennifer was a fellow with the Black Metropolis Research Consortium at the University of Chicago, and was also recently awarded the 2015 Archie K. Davis Fellowship from the North Caroliniana Society. Self-identifying as a scholar-activist, she also has ten years’ experience as an organizer both on and off college campuses.

 


[1] “UIC Student Data Book: Fall 2013-Section B: Student Demographic Characteristics- Table 20: Racial/Ethnic Distribution by Student Level Fall 2009-2013,” Office of Institutional Research, accessed September 5, 2015. http://www.oir.uic.edu/sites/all/pdf_files/Tab2_STUDENT_DATA/SubTab1_Student_Data_Book/
2014/SectionB-StudentDemographics.pdf

2 “Chicago (city) Illinois,” U.S. Census Bureau: State and County QuickFacts, accessed September 5, 2015, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/

[3] Scott Jaschik , “Racial Profiling on Campus?” Inside Higher Ed, January 26, 2015, accessed September 5, 2015,  https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/01/26/incident-yale-sets-new-debate-racial-profiling

[4] Scott Jaschik, “Race and Crime Alerts,” Inside Higher Ed, February 26, 2015, accessed September 5, 2015, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2015/02/26/
should-colleges-crime-alerts-include-reference-race-suspects

One thought on “The University Is Not an Oasis: Crime Alert Emails, Campus Policing, and Low Enrollments of Black Students

  1. My husband, an associate professor at Michigan State University, was stopped by MSU campus police as he biked across campus one afternoon 3 years ago. He was told, after he demanded to know why he was stopped, that he fit a description of an African American or Hispanic man in a dark t-shirt and cap. Could the description be any more generic? Thanks for your article.

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