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Celebrity Won’t Protect You If You’re Black

Corinne Gaston |
September 9, 2014 | 3:15 p.m. PDT

Deputy Opinion Editor


Imagine you’re a filmmaker and producer walking to your car in Beverly Hills to put money in the meter before heading to a pre-Emmy's party. Suddenly, you are stopped by police officers who detain and arrest you and it’s not until hours later, after you’ve been taken to the station and fingerprinted, that you’re told you match their profile of a bank robber that’s on the loose. What do you have in common with the alleged bank robber? You’re both tall and bald.

Oh, and you’re also both Black men.

This was the experience of Charles Belk on Aug. 22, which shows us that police racial discrimination is alive and well. Justifiably, Belk published an account of his arrest in which he detailed the incident, including the failure of the officers to follow standard police procedure, such as reading Belk his Miranda Rights.

What’s unusual about this case, however, is that the Beverly Hills Police Department issued a public apology to Belk and acknowledged that there were procedural “breakdowns.” When mentioning improvements, Sgt. Max Subin even said that the department was “receptive to some of the issues that have been raised.”

The acknowledgement of the breakdown in police procedure probably comes as a surprise to most, as it is a significant departure from the narrative we expect. In the wake of the recent Los Angeles police killings of Black and Latino men such as Michael Brown and Omar Abrego, and national mounting anger over severe racial profiling, perhaps this is an early sign that police protocol might take a step in the right direction. However, the skeptic in me believes that the only reason there was any admittance of wrongdoing by the Beverly Hills PD, is because Belk has a degree of fame. Enough fame to garner attention from The Huffington Post and the Twitterverse, but not enough to be recognized on sight by the police and benefit from celebrity privilege in his immediate interaction with the officers.

Celebrities of color, particularly Black celebrities, experience a strange and sometimes contradictory phenomenon. When recognized, they are often viewed and treated as famous individuals first and as people of color second. For example, Denzel Washington would be likely to receive special attention, maybe a drink on the house or a chat with the head chef if he were to dine at an upscale restaurant in West Hollywood. However, if he were to walk into a high-end store dressed casually and the sales associates failed to recognize him, they would see him as a regular Black man. They might exchange glances or feel slightly more alert or on edge without consciously choosing to do so. One of them might even follow Washington around the store to ensure he didn’t steal anything. As a Black woman, I’ve been followed by retail employees in stores like Nordstrom and I sadly count myself as lucky that I haven’t yet lost count of times it has happened, as I know of people who have.

READ MORE: Ferguson, Mo. Is Making Us Confront Racism In The Media

An example of the Black celebrity phenomenon comes from 2012, when Denzel Washington acted in a film called “Safe House.” Before the film was released, numerous billboards went up around Los Angeles with the words “NO ONE IS SAFE” boldly stamped over Washington’s shady face. His name was not printed on the billboard. One of my friends, who didn’t recognize Washington’s face, thought the billboard was incredibly racist for feeding into the image and racist fear of the “scary Black man.” Another friend dismissed the implicit racism because she recognized that the man on the billboard was Washington and said that he was probably the protagonist protecting other people (he wasn’t). When the celebrity was recognized, he was viewed as an actor—as the likely protagonist, not a real-life danger. However, when he wasn’t recognized, his billboard image evoked a fear and negative stereotype of Black men that is all too common here in the United States.

Fame can open individuals up to certain privileges or special treatment, however, this has not stopped police and everyday people from countless society page-worthy blunders of wrongly accusing, detaining or arresting Black celebrities and scholars for crimes they did not commit.

Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Studies was arrested for entering his own home in 2009 after a neighbor called the police on what she said were "two Black males with backpacks" breaking into a house.

Arizona State University professor Ersula Ore, who walked into the street on the university’s campus because the sidewalk was obstructed by construction, was stopped, questioned and very quickly slammed to the ground by a police officer and arrested.

After buying a $1,300 Movado watch for his mother at Macy’s, HBO “Treme” actor Robert Brown was accused of committing credit card fraud by three men whom he believed to be NYPD officers. The men cuffed Brown, told him his card was fake and that he was going to jail before putting him in a holding cell for more than an hour. Once they learned Brown was an actor, they let him go.

READ MORE: Race And Retail: To What Extent Is Color Important?

More well-known is the case of Academy Award-winning actor, producer and director Forest Whitaker. Whitaker was falsely accused of shoplifting at the Milano Market deli in New York City and then frisked by an employee in front of approximately fifty customers. Whitaker did not try to get the employee fired, but only said that the company should be dedicated to treating costumers better than they treated him.

The deli employee was later fired by Milano Market, who claimed that race was not a factor in the “misguided” employee’s decision to pat Whitaker down, but would Milano have fired the employee at all if the Black man patted down and humiliated hadn’t been an Academy Award-winning celebrity? I think it’s safe to say that the employee would still be employed.

What incidents like these show us is that celebrity and respectability politics do not protect us and that we should pay more attention to how police treat all Black people, regardless of societal currency. Because if a professor can be slammed to the ground for asking questions or an actor arrested and denied legal rights such as a phone call, how is everyone else being treated?

To give this a little perspective, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union, in 2013, of the 191,558 New Yorkers who were stopped by the police, 160,149 (85 percent) were Black and Latino people. Blacks alone made up 56 percent of New Yorkers stopped by the police, though according to the United States Census Bureau, Blacks made up only 25.5 percent of the New York City population that year. In New York City, Black folks are literally stopped by the police at double the percentage we exist. White people on the other hand, made up 44 percent of the population, but were only 11 percent of those stopped by police in 2013.

READ MORE: The Black Male: An Endangered Species?

Earl Sampson, a Black convenience store employee in Florida, has been stopped-and-frisked 258 times in a 4-year period by Miami Gardens Police, has been searched over 100 times, frequently during work hours, arrested 62 times, and jailed 56 times. His biggest crime? Carrying a little weed on his person.

Trayon Christian is a Black engineering student who saved up money from his part-time job to buy a $350 belt at Barney’s. He made the purchase only to be followed and harassed by two undercover officers who were alerted by a Barney’s clerk who was concerned about the legitimacy of the purchase. They allegedly told him “that he could not afford to make such an expensive purchase,” and even after handing over his ID, debit card and receipt, the officers didn’t let Christian go until after they had called Chase to verify that the debit card did indeed belong to him. Christian returned the Barney’s belt in disgust and later successfully filed a lawsuit against the department store and NYPD.

READ MORE: Macy's And Barney's Under Investigation By Attorney General

A Black father was tased and arrested while waiting in a public area to pick up his children from school.

In 2013, a white plainclothes officer, who did not immediately identify himself as a police officer, questioned and arrested a Black man who was drinking iced tea and lemonade in a parking lot. Yes. A Black man was arrested for drinking iced tea in public. We’re all familiar with the phrases “Driving While Black,” “Shopping While Black,” and even "Walking While Black," but now it seems like “Existing While Black” fits the profile as well. If I included every instance of a Black person being harassed, questioned, detained, and arrested for something outrageous in the United States, the Neon Tommy site might crash.

There’s a ruffled fluttering of press whenever the police put their hands on someone who belongs to the celebrity or film industry “in-crowd” and there's also a collective sense of indignation at one of society’s “decent” citizens being treated like a common criminal. But the real crime is that most people don’t muster the same attention and indignation for everyday Black people stopped, harassed and wrongfully detained, arrested and brutalized by the police. As a Black person, do you have to be an actor, university president, or Nobel Peace Prize winner for your wrongful arrest to be called an injustice? These unrealistic standards of what makes a person valuable to society and deserving of full humanity is damaging to entire demographics of our population. And even if people of color do achieve celebrity and social standing, there’s no magic wand that erases their chances of being profiled by the police.

SEE ALSO: We May Forget Dorner, But We Won't Forget The LAPD's History

It’s time that we and our police forces stop profiling and criminalizing Black people, especially Black men, for nothing more than "Existing While Black." We have a right to live free from the fear and reality of profiling and racialized police brutality. We’re human. We shouldn’t have to be film producers or actors to get the country’s attention.


"The War At Home" is a project of co-columnists Corinne Gaston and Maya Richard-Craven to examine and discuss contemporary issues of discrimination, violence and social injustice within American borders.

Read more here. Contact Deputy Opinion Editor Corinne Gaston here; or follow her on Twitter.



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