Steve Locke, assistant professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, was walking to a local restaurant for a burrito when the police detained him. The police cruiser followed him until he was almost at the burrito restaurant before approaching him. The officer unsnapped his holster as he walked toward him, prompting Locke to remove his hands from his pockets. Two other patrol cars pulled up as the officer questioned Locke about where he was coming from and where he was headed.
The police detained Locke for 35 minutes because he matched the description of an alleged robber who’d attempted to break into a woman’s house. However, the description couldn’t have matched Locke because he was wearing a knitted cap designed especially for him.
“Barbara Sullivan made a knit cap for me. She knitted it in pinks and browns and blues and oranges and lime green. No one has a hat like this. It doesn’t fit any description that anyone would have,” Locke wrote in a blog post chronicling the incident.
The victim of the alleged crime was called to the scene to identify Locke as the suspect. In that moment, Locke was sure that he would soon meet his end.
“It was at this moment that I knew that I was probably going to die,” Locke wrote. “I am not being dramatic when I say this. I was not going to get into a police car. I was not going to present myself to some victim. I was not going let someone tell the cops that I was not guilty when I already told them that I had nothing to do with any robbery. I was not going to let them take me anywhere because if they did, the chance I was going to be accused of something I did not do rose exponentially. I knew this in my heart. I was not going anywhere with these cops and I was not going to let some white woman decide whether or not I was a criminal, especially after I told them that I was not a criminal. This meant that I was going to resist arrest. This meant that I was not going to let the police put their hands on me.
If you are wondering why people don’t go with the police, I hope this explains it for you.”
Locke presented his Massachusetts College of Art and Design ID and told the officers he was a professor, but the officer still said he fit the description.
The alleged victim never showed up to the scene, but a detective let Locke go after thanking him for his cooperation.
Locke’s chilling account of his interaction with his local police department is telling of how African-Americans are criminalized. Despite Locke’s prestige in his community and multiple fellowships and degrees, he was viewed as a threat.
In his book, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, Khalid G. Muhammad exposes the “glue that binds crime to race.” Muhammad, who’s the director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, traces the dangerous and illogical idea that Black Americans are more inclined to commit crimes to Reconstruction, a time after the Civil War when 4 million freed Black Americans “transformed from property to human beings to would-be citizens of the nation.”
The freeing of slaves prompted new fears in white Americans, including social scientists that referred to Black Americans as “the strangers in our midst.” Using census data, those social scientists created knowledge that linked Black Americans to criminality, which only fueled fears that Black Americans were inferior and more dangerous. These experiments evolved into “one of the most widely accepted bases for justifying prejudicial thinking, discriminatory treatment, and/or racial violence as an instrument of public safety,” according to Muhammad.
Even now, Blacks are perceived as innate criminals while white people simply commit crimes. This idea is so ingrained in America’s soil that it leads police officers to shoot 12-year-olds on playgrounds and face no consequences. Systemic profiling is a result of this skewed logic. Regardless of accomplishments, all Black Americans can be subjected to this discrimination, even prominent professors simply walking to grab lunch.