Last Monday, a Black Harvard University student was beaten by Cambridge Police while being arrested for public intoxication and nudity on Massachusetts Avenue in Harvard Square. Video shows police knocking undergraduate Selorm Ohene to the ground and repeatedly punching his torso as he cries for help. Eyewitnesses also stated that there was a pool of blood on the ground after the incident was over and that Ohene was placed on an ambulance stretcher. Many are outraged that a young, obviously intoxicated and confused student was the object of police brutality in such a liberal city. However, this is a naive position to have—liberal cities are not immune to brutality nor to racism. They still operate within a racist policing framework and most Americans, regardless of location, hold an implicit bias against Black people. This racism was also displayed a couple weeks ago in Philadelphia when two Black men were arrested in Starbucks while waiting to have a business meeting over coffee. When constructing a narrative around police brutality and implicit bias, liberal urban areas cannot be exempt. All Americans need to think about how they contribute to, or are complicit in, these scenarios regardless of where they live.
Incidents like the one in Philadelphia not only involve the police, but also the bystanders that called the authorities, who often act on their own implicit bias. Both of the aforementioned incidents would not have occurred if the victims were white. There are often multitudes of intoxicated students outside of fraternity houses who don’t have the police called on them. If anything, medical assistance would have been called for a Harvard student rather than the police beating him. Furthermore, coffee meetings happen daily at nearly every Starbucks in the country and patrons aren’t arrested for not purchasing coffee within the first few minutes of arriving. These incidents have a primary bias, which initially gets authorities involved, and is then escalated by the police. The barista who called the authorities on the two Black men in Starbucks felt threatened enough by these men to do so. This disproportionate response highlights exactly how implicit bias works: Black people are implicitly viewed as threatening, and situations that are completely normal and nonthreatening are suddenly viewed as potentially dangerous. If the authorities are then involved, the situation escalates and unfortunately usually includes violence. As a result of implicit bias, situations aren’t de-escalated; for example, the Starbucks barista didn’t ask the men if they wanted to purchase anything or if they were waiting on anyone. A situation that could have been a micro-aggression turned into two wrongful arrests.
Furthermore, most people are unaware of their implicit bias and the devastating effects it can have. It important to make a distinction that people with implicit biases are not necessarily bad people; implicit biases are the effect of continued negative media portrayal of Black people. However, implicit biases can be reduced over time as people realize that they have them and actively work against them. I commend Starbucks for closing their stores to teach their employees about implicit bias and how to act more fairly to customers. I believe that more companies and institutions should follow suit and conduct similar trainings. Police officers should definitely require implicit bias training so that they react appropriately to situations involving people of color. Being in a liberal area doesn’t automatically undo one’s implicit bias, and this topic is often overlooked when we have conversations about race and what constitutes racism.
In addition to implicit bias, liberal cities also have institutional bias and problematic policing, just like less liberal cities. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), in Boston, 63 percent of police stops from 2007 to 2010 targeted Black residents, while Black people make up less than a quarter of the total population. These numbers are on par with the rest of the nation, and Boston’s liberal government and policies don’t spare it from problematic policing and police brutality. Looking at these statistics, it is easy to see why the incident at Harvard occurred. Similarly, in New York City over half of the people stopped by the police from 2002 to 2017 were Black and 80 percent were innocent, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. All too often, we conflate liberality with equality. Left-leaning people tend to think that the areas in which they live are more immune to these nation-wide issues. Not facing these issues invalidates real experiences that Black people face in more liberal places and allows a large number of people to be complacent with current injustices. Black residents still face discrimination and racist institutions regardless of where they live, and its important to recognize our biases and seek to change them.