The following letter was originally sent to James Perrotti, Chief of Yale University Police, in response to a University-wide e-mail about the recent mugging of a student.
Dear Chief Perrotti:
Although I truly appreciate your efforts to keep me and my fellow Yale students safe, I must voice a concern raised by your most recent e-mail.
I feel that your limited description of the robber as “a black male in his late teens or early twenties” was not only unnecessary, because it gives no insight into who the attacker was, but also harmful because it just feeds the hysteria and fear of black strangers that is prevalent at Yale.
When the chief of police offers an attacker’s race as his only defining characteristic, and thinks that it is important to share that one piece of information with the student body, his comments can only be interpreted as a warning to stay away from young black males, especially at night.
But the problem is that many “black males in their late teens or early 20s” attend this University and walk the streets at night, as is their right. And many other “black males in their late teens or early 20s” are responsible for feeding us three square meals a day and maintaining the places that we call home here. These men, too, walk the streets of New Haven at night after work, and I find it appalling that the community can regard them as invisible during the day, and then as a group of criminals at night.
I understand that the attacker’s race and age may be the only information that you have about him. However, I am sure that in your capacity as police chief, you are familiar with the process of deciding what information to make public, and for that reason, it surprised me that you thought it a good idea to provide such a brief, generalizing statement about the robber, possibly foreseeing the effect that it may have on the collective psyche of the community.
And I have already witnessed the impact that generalizations and the vilification of black males has had on this student body. Last week, I listened as a friend of mine recounted a number of times that white students had called security to report him as he washed clothes in the basement laundry room, or as he sat alone in the courtyard of his residential college. Each time, security guards came and questioned him, and it was discovered that each time, the callers reported him simply because he was a big, black man whom they did not recognize.
In a community where this kind of blind fear exists, descriptions of attackers as simply “black males” are fuel for the fire. I have already witnessed the consequences of your e-mail first hand. I was sitting at lunch yesterday with a white student from a wealthy Connecticut suburb, when I brought up your e-mail and shared my problem with it. She said the following: “It’s interesting to hear your perspective, because me reading it, I was, like ‘Oh, better stay away from black males at night!'”
Her words justified the pang that I felt in the pit of my stomach when I first read your description of the assailant. It also confirmed my inkling that this university tends to promote fear as a safety tactic, rather than common sense.
I am from New York City, so I know that safety is an important concern in an urban environment. However, I also know that racial profiling is no substitute for using your instincts and common sense to avoid becoming the victim of a crime.
I hope that in the future, you will be more cautious about the information that you provide, and that you will consider the likely repercussions of the statements that you make.
Again, I certainly appreciate the job that you do, but my conscience would not allow me to be quiet on this matter. I care deeply about the environment that I live in and the fate of this school, and I look forward to the day when all members of this community feel safe and protected.
Mena Cammett is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.