Understanding racial profiling

Gentrified Oakhurst neighborhood in Decatur, Ga.

For more than 30 years I have gone uninvited into many neighborhoods in more than 20 states, first as an archaeologist and later as a historian. Whether it was a wealthy white neighborhood or a poor African American neighborhood, one thing was constant: no one ever looked out a window, saw a suspicious white man, and called the police.

Last week I was photographing “sit-down” restaurants east of the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C. The District’s seventh and eighth wards have the highest concentrations of poverty in the nation’s capital. Neighborhoods like Deanwood, Anacostia, and Congress Heights since the 1940s have become the city’s sink for African Americans displaced by urban renewal and gentrification.

Strip shopping center at the Pennsylvania and Branch avenues in Southeast Washington. Two stores serving food there are a Subway and pizza place. The center also includes a liquor store and a DC Metropolitan Police substation.

One of my clients funds anti-poverty efforts in those neighborhoods. Since last Fall I have been interviewing people working in 14 non-profit organizations providing housing, workforce development, educational services, and healthcare to residents in these wards. I’ve also been interviewing their clients and residents. The project is intended to document my client’s work over the past five years.

I needed cutaway shots of the restaurants for the video I am producing in the documentation project. These restaurants are distinct from the many take-out and fast food stores East of the River and they are a significant source of pride and pain for residents. The establishments are a constant reminder that Washington’s table service restaurant industry continues to snub these neighborhoods and yet there has been very slow change over the past decade.

One of the restaurants I was photographing is an IHOP in the Congress Heights neighborhood. When the restaurant was announced in 2007, it was touted as the “first nationally known, sit-down restaurant in Ward 8,” wrote the Washington Times. “It’s a major coup for the community.”

Congress Heights IHOP.

There’s a Metrobus shelter across the street from the restaurant. Inside, a lone woman was bracing herself against the 40-degree late winter wind.

“Are they going to tear it down,” she shouted as I was standing in the middle of Alabama Avenue taking pictures.

I walked over to ask her why she thought that.

“They’re buying up the land and they’re pushing people out of DC to bring certain people back into DC,” she said.

Who, I asked?

White people, she replied.

Carol — I asked her name after I whipped out my phone to record our exchange — thought I was working with folks in the real estate industry buying up existing buildings to tear them down.

That wasn’t the first time I had been approached by someone in a gentrifying African American neighborhood and asked that question. It happened regularly in Decatur, Ga.’s, Oakhurst neighborhood during the three years I was documenting teardowns and gentrification. And it happened in Atlanta’s Oakland City neighborhood.

Former urban homesteading neighborhood in SW Atlanta, 2014.

It took my encounter with Carol to realize that I had been racially profiled. I’m a white man walking around with a camera in an African American neighborhood, looking closely at buildings, in a space where uninvited offers by folks in the real estate industry are a part of daily life. To folks like Carol, who decode the presence of someone like me as a threat to their well-being because of gentrification and displacement pressures, I can appear just as scary as an African American man walking around a middle-class white neighborhood looking closely at buildings.

Decatur, Ga., resident Don Denard recounts experience being racially profiled by Decatur police to the Decatur City Commission, February 2014.

But there’s a difference. The type of racial profiling I have experienced in gentrifying neighborhood resulted in meeting new people and having conversations about their lives and their communities.

For African Americans in similar situations in white neighborhoods, the encounters frequently end with a call to the police, uninvited questions, unlawful detention, and, yes, death by cop. Racial profiling is one of many manifestations of structural racism and it’s something that many whites are unfamiliar with. Perhaps one day it will be possible for people of color to walk through white suburbs and instead of having their civil rights violated, they’ll be able to have the same types of encounters whites take for granted in every neighborhood.

© 2017 D.S. Rotenstein