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#LivingWhileBlack: How does racial bias lead to unnecessary calls to police?

A profusion of national incidents in which white citizens have called police on black citizens engaged in everyday activities shows how racial bias can escalate into confrontation and even violence or death. Yamiche Alcindor examines the concerns, highlighted by hashtags and memes like #LivingWhileBlack, with NAACP president Derrick Johnson.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A number of recent incidents have highlighted how racial tension or bias, even what social scientists call unconscious bias, can escalate.

    This spring and summer, those concerns have taken on new urgency and risen to national attention as routine events have turned into confrontations among citizens and sometimes with the police.

    Yamiche Alcindor explores this issue further now. It's part of our Race Matters reporting.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Several of the latest confrontations have involved white citizens calling police on African-Americans engaged in typical everyday activities, including a 12-year-old mowing lawns near Cleveland, Ohio, two men barbecuing at a public park in Oakland, California, or this 8-year-old girl selling bottled water without a permit outside the San Francisco Giants' ballpark.

    The woman who called police here being captured on cell phone video posted by the girl's mother.

  • Woman:

    Oh, you can hide all you want. The whole world is going to see you, boo.

  • Woman:

    Yes, illegally selling water without a permit.

  • Woman:

    On my property.

  • Woman:

    It's not your property.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    The woman who made the call later apologized, and denied her actions were racially motivated.

    Most of the incidents took place outside and in public and were caught on video that often went viral. While none of those incidents resulted in arrests or charges being filed, they followed other high-profile confrontations, including one in May that took a much more violent turn.

    Police in Warsaw, North Carolina, responded to a call from Waffle House employees over an alleged argument with a black patron and officers slammed 22-year-old Anthony West into a wall and choked him. They said West, who had taken his sister to her high school prom earlier that night, was uncooperative. He was later charged with disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The CEO of Waffle House later apologized to West privately.

    And in early April, two black men were arrested in a Philadelphia Starbucks when employees called police because the men had taken a table without ordering anything. The men were later released, and settled with the city for $1 each and a pledge from to establish a program for young entrepreneurs.

    The founder of Starbucks personally apologized to the men.

  • Howard Schultz:

    As I shared with you in Philadelphia, it was a reprehensible situation that we took complete ownership of, and something that really was embarrassing, horrifying, and all the issues that we talked about that day.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And the company closed thousands of its stores nationwide a month later for a one-day employee training session on how to recognize and overcome implicit or unconscious bias in their decision-making.

    All of this comes at a time when police behavior and response is under scrutiny, particularly when it comes to detaining and arresting black people. On June 19, police in East Pittsburgh shot and killed 17 year-old Antwon Rose as he fled a car. The vehicle was stopped during the investigation of a drive-by shooting. Rose was shot three times in the back as he ran. The officer who fired the shots was later charged with criminal homicide.

    Many of these incidents have taken on hashtag and memes of their own, often referred to as Living While Black.

    We examine the concerns and some of the responses with the president of the NAACP, Derrick Johnson.

    Derrick Johnson, thanks so much for being here.

    I want to jump right in.

    There have been incident after incident of people calling the police on black people while doing regular, everyday things like swimming and barbecuing. What do you think is at the heart of these incidents?

  • Derrick Johnson:

    Well, we have seen since the president's election in 2016 an increase of intolerance.

    You have individuals who simply see young kids and think they are criminals, they pose a danger. In my home city of Detroit, Michigan, a 14-year-old simply asking for direction to school to get shot at.

    The level of intolerance is germinating directly from the White House.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Some people are criticizing the police, saying that they shouldn't respond when someone calls the police on an 8-year-old selling bottled water.

    What roles do you think the police have, especially when the police say that they need to respond because, if they are called, they need to engage?

  • Derrick Johnson:

    Well, at some point, the police also need to take account that individuals are being falsely accused, and those who are accusing should also be facing criminal charges.

    How could a — anyone call the police on an 8-year-old selling bottled water? The level of intolerance is something that needs to be responded back to by the police, so, if there is a false claim, those individuals who are making the claim should be charged.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    And in some of these incidents, we see white people, white women calling the police on black people. These callers often say that they aren't motivated by race, they are just concerned citizens that want to talk to the police.

    What is your response and what do you make of people saying that people should have a right to call the police if they have a concern?

  • Derrick Johnson:

    Well, we're not suggesting no one should call the police, but implicit bias is something that we have seen across the country for many years.

    The difference now between the past is, social media has allowed individual citizens to capture what is taking place to report it, and/or have a countersense of information, the truth.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    People are so disturbed by some of these incidents, because we have seen lethal incidents where police have encountered unarmed African-Americans and shot them unjustifiably.

    But we also see that Starbucks closed thousands of its doors to train its employees on implicit bias and unconscious bias. Are you at all encouraged by what you see Starbucks and others doing?

  • Derrick Johnson:

    Well, when corporate citizens such as Starbucks understand the complexity of what is taking place to take a step back, shut down the stores, take a loss to ensure that their employees understand the seriousness of misrepresenting someone's character or behavior, that is significant. Other corporations should take note.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So, what do you think the NAACP is doing or should be doing to kind of counteract some of the things that you just talked about?

  • Derrick Johnson:

    Well, presidential election is the high watermark of voter activity. Midterm elections is when activity go down.

    We are encouraging our voters, individuals who have the history of voting in the presidential, we must go vote during the midterm elections. Elections have consequences, and we're living through those consequences.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    But America had issues, race issues in particular, long before President Trump was elected to office. You referenced President Trump several times, but what do you make of the idea that this has been a long history, going back generations of people, looking at African-Americans and saying, hey, that is a criminal, I need to call the police, overpolice — overcriminalizing African-Americans?

  • Derrick Johnson:

    Well, yes, it's been going on a long time, but to normalize what is taking place — see, that is what is happening now.

    There was a time that it would have been unheard of in the last 15 years to have a Charlottesville-type rally. And, over time, people say, this is not right.

    But since the presidential election, we have seen a sharp increase. In fact, since the election of President Obama in 2008, we have seen this increase.

    And now there's a complete loss of civility in the public discourse, complete distrust. And media plays a key role in creating tribalism in ways in which we have not seen in many, many years.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    So, do you believe that, if someone can then elect, go to the ballot box, elect an official that cares about racial discrimination, cares about these issues, that that is going to stop someone from calling the police on a girl who is selling bottled water?

    Do you think that this is something that is ultimately political, or do you think that there is a cultural change that needs to be happening here?

  • Derrick Johnson:

    Well, it is an accountability question that I'm raising.

    Police officers only respond if there is accountability in place. So, when you have accountable district attorneys to ensure that they will apply the law equally to bad actors, police officers, as they will criminals, then the police officers adjust their behavior.

    If you have an elected officials who are leaders in their communities, and they put in place public policy to hold people accountable, then the level of intolerance will go away, and because there is an accountability measure that is in place.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    You talked about the laws, you talked about policies, but what we're talking about is white citizens is looking at an African-American child selling bottled water and saying, I need to call the cops.

    That is not a law that can change. That is someone's heart or someone's mind looking at that child and saying, something needs to happen here.

  • Derrick Johnson:

    Well, it is hard to legislate one — someone's heart.

    The only thing you can do is put accountability measures in place, and hope that different communities embrace a multicultural reality, where people can have greater appreciation and understanding.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    I want to ask you about President Trump's nominee to the Supreme Court. We don't know who they are yet.

    However, a lot of these cases, lethal cases with police, they are ultimately litigated in the courts.

    In your opinion and in the view of the NAACP, what are some of the most important things that might come before the Supreme Court?

  • Derrick Johnson:

    So, for us, we're saying that the new standard that the majority leader established with the appointment of the last Supreme Court nominee should be the standard now.

    There shouldn't be anyone seated until after the new Senate is seated. That is because the Supreme Court is significant. We have the Voting Rights Act will be coming right back before the Supreme Court in the near future. You have all types of civil right gains that we have seen over time will be coming before this court.

    And if we allow an activist court to undermine and wipe out the gains this country has made over the last 50 years, we will be a worse nation for that.

  • Yamiche Alcindor:

    Well, thank you so much for joining me, Derrick Johnson, the president of the NAACP.

  • Derrick Johnson:

    Thank you.

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